There’s an old Johnny Cash song (“God’s Gonna Cut You Down”) that is rooted in today’s Gospel:


You can run on for a long time … Sooner or later God’ll cut you down … Go tell that long tongue liar, Go and tell that midnight rider, Tell the rambler, the gambler, the backbiter, Tell ’em that God’s gonna cut ’em down.


These verses go directly to the end point (judgment), but there is more to the story. First, there is mercy offered, then patience, and finally judgment. 


Many today either dismiss judgment entirely or believe that judgment will result in instant entrance to glory.


Today’s Gospel contains a necessary balance. It speaks of God’s patience and care now but also of the day of reckoning, of judgment. On that day, He will adjudicate our “case”; the decision will be final; there will be no turning back.


Let’s look at this Gospel in two main parts:


The Proclamation of the Problem


The Gospel opens with these lines:


Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. Jesus said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did! Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”


What Jesus is saying is that is easy to focus on the sins of others, failing to discern our own need for repentance and mercy. Before God we are all beggars; all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (cf Romans 3:23). Every one of us is in need of boatloads of grace and mercy. While we may rightly distinguish that there is a difference here on earth between the sanctity of a Mother Theresa and the wretchedness of a Hitler, before God we all fall far short.


Sin surely affects the lives of others and we are not asked to be blind to that. It is important to learn from the example of others, both good and bad; the point is to learn. We miss the point if all we do when we see someone suffer the effects of sin is to say, “My, my, God don’t like ugly!” What about the ugly in us? What about our own sin?


To our all-too-eager question “What about them, Lord?” Jesus replies, “What about you? Work on your own issues and leave their final fate to me. Punishment doesn’t just come to others; if you don’t watch out it will come to you as well.” Just to make sure we get it, the Lord adds, “I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”


In effect, the Lord tells us to get serious about our sin and what it can do to us. The most serious problem in life is not the fact that we die or the manner of our death. The most serious problem we face is not Pilate or any political misfortune; it is not falling towers or any physical threat. It is not financial setback, or suffering, or losing our job, or losing our possessions. The most serious problem we face is our own sin.


We don’t tend to think like this. Instead, we minimize the maximum and maximize the minimum. We get all worked up about lesser things while ignoring greater ones. We are forever worrying about passing things like health and money but paying little attention to the things of eternity and to getting ready to meet God. Let our physical health be threatened and we are instantly on our knees begging God for deliverance, but let our sins pile up and sinful drives be eating at our very soul and we take little notice. We don’t seem to care about being delivered from things that are far more serious than mere cancer.


The Lord says, If your right hand causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body cast into hell (Matt 5:30). Pay attention, the Lord is saying that it is worse to sin than to lose your right hand!


If I were to lose my right hand, I think I would lament it for the rest of my life. The very thought of it gives me stabbing grief. Why don’t we think of our sin this way? Do you see how obtuse we are, how distorted our priorities?


One day the Lord looked at a paralyzed man and decided to cure his most serious problem. He said, “Your sins are forgiven.” Could the man’s sins have been more serious than his paralysis? Yes!


Thus, the Lord warns us that we ought to be more serious about our sins lest we perish, not merely losing our earthly life but our eternal life. The fact that the solution to our problem required the death of the Son of God indicates that we are in far worse shape than we think. Without our repentance and the magnificent mercy of God, something far worse than having a tower fall on us or our enemies kill us might happen. Elsewhere in Scripture the Lord says, I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him (Lk 12:4-5). The Lord is not counseling a cringing and avoidant fear but rather a respectful fear such that we are serious about judgment and understand that the result on that day will be eternal, unlike the passing quality of any earthly encounter.


Having portrayed the problem and underscored its seriousness, the Lord then reminds us that He is willing to help us, with His grace and mercy, to get ready. He sets forth a process in which we must cooperate, for judgment will surely come.


The Portrayal of the Process


The Lord tells a parable that sets forth the process in which we are currently engaged: a process of patience and mercy that leads to the finality of judgment. Note the following three steps:


1. ASSESSMENT - There was once a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard and when he came in search of fruit on it and found none said to the gardener, “For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this tree and have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?”


Faith is a fruit-bearing tree. It is to bear the fruits of love, justice, and the keeping of the commandments. The Lord looks for these fruits and often, through our conscience and by His Word, assesses whether they are present.


Many claim to have faith, to be fruitful in what the Lord seeks, but it is He, as owner of the field, who sets the terms. We are not the judge in our own case. It is the Lord’s ongoing work to assess our progress and fruitfulness. He determines whether the necessary fruits are present.


Today, many people claim the right to assess their own status. They make bold proclamations that God would not “dare” to find them to be lacking in anything substantial. In presumption, many declare themselves to be safe, fruitful, and righteous.


This is not for us to say, however. In the parable it is the owner, the Lord, who makes the assessment; and note that in this parable He proposes that something significant is lacking. 


Yet some interlocutor, here called the gardener but let’s call her the Church, asks for mercy and time. As we shall see, such mercy and time is granted, along with necessary supplies (grace) to help accomplish what is sought: the fruit of faith.


2. ASSISTANCE - The text goes on to describe the prayers and requests of the gardener (in this case, Mother Church): Sir leave it for this year also. I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it. It may bear fruit in the future.


The Lord, the owner of the garden, not only grants the request but will also be the one to supply the necessary help to draw forth the fruits patiently awaited.

Indeed, the Lord sends us help and graces in so many ways:


  • He speaks in our conscience.
  • He has written His law in our heart.
  • He gave us the law.
  • He sent us prophets.
  • He punishes our wrongdoings in order to bring us to repentance.
    • Before I was afflicted, I strayed. But now I have kept your word (Ps 119:67).
    • But God disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Heb 12:10).
  • He sent us His Son, who established the Church and gave us grace and the sacraments.
  • He gave us grace and the sacraments.
  • It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. [That we be] no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ (Eph 4: 11-17).

Do you see how much God has done for us? He has graced us in every way. He has entrusted to the Church, in answer to her pleas, every necessary grace to bear fruit. Now He patiently waits. He looks to return again to seek the fruits that are necessary for those who claim to have saving faith, fruits that are necessary to be able to endure the day of His coming, fruits that are necessary for us to have the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14). Indeed, we cannot see or endure His presence without the fruit of holiness by His grace, for as Scripture says, Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Or Who may stand in his holy place? Only he who has clean hands and a pure heart (Ps 24:3-4). Only God can accomplish this, but He who made us without us will not save us without us. Thus, we must, by His grace, renounce our sin and accept His grace.


3. ACCEPTANCE - The parable ends very simply with this line: If not you can cut it down.


I’ve chosen the word “acceptance” carefully. Judgment is not so much God’s decision as it His acceptance of our decision to bear fruit or to refuse to do so; to accept or refuse His offer of the fruits of faith such as chastity, mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation, love of the poor, and appreciation of the truth.


On the day of judgment God accepts our final choice. It is not so much the passing of a sentence as it is the final recognition of the absolute choice that we have made. At this point it is no longer possible for us to change; what we are remains forever fixed.

As we get older it is harder and harder to change. We are like concrete that sets over time; like pottery, which begins moist and malleable, but whose shape is fixed when subjected to the fire.


Thus, the Lord teaches us to be serious about sin and about judgment. For now, there is mercy and every grace available to us, but there will come a day when our decision will be accepted and forever fixed.


The Gospel today teaches beautifully of God’s patience but also of our need for mercy. It warns us that the decision we make by the way we live our life will finally be accepted. Yes, there is a day of judgment closing in on each of us.


Pointing out how often we sang “Kumbaya, My Lord” will not suffice.


In today’s second reading, St. Paul warns us against presumption and trying to serve as judge in our own case:


Our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all of them were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was the Christ. Yet God was not pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the desert. These things happened as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil things, as they did. Do not grumble as some of them did, and suffered death by the destroyer. These things happened to them as an example, and they have been written down as a warning to us, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall (1 Cor 10:1:ff).


For now, there is mercy, but there will come a day of ratification, of judgment; a day when the question will be asked and the final answer supplied, not so much by God as by us.


Your flesh says, “No worries,” but the Lord says, “Repent!”


Here are more of the lyrics from the Johnny Cash song “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”:


You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down
 Sooner or later God’ll cut you down


Well, you may throw your rock and hide your hand
and hide your hand
Workin’ in the dark against your fellow man
But as sure as God made black and white
What’s down in the dark will be brought to the light. 


You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down
 Sooner or later God’ll cut you down


Go tell that long tongue liar
Go and tell that midnight rider
Tell the rambler, the gambler, the backbiter
Tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut you down
Tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut you down

Tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut you down