3rd SUNDAY OF LENT
Ex 3:1-8,13-15; 1Cor 10:1-6,10-12; Luke 13:1-9
“UNLESS YOU REPENT YOU WILL ALL PERISH AS THEY DID”
In today’s gospel, Jesus is trying to draw his hearers into a thorough self-examination. Rather than looking on, and debating why this is happening, or why that happened, he asks them to look at themselves, at their own situation, and become more concerned with what is happening or not happening there. He uses an illustration to show them how many chances they are getting, how patient and tolerant God is with them. He goes on to say that this will not go on indefinitely, and that, sooner or later, they will be responsible, and will be held responsible for what they have done, and for what they have failed to do.
- WHEN BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO US
Somewhere in the conversation people (the text does not reveal who they were) told Jesus a horrible story about a massacre of people from Galilee which resulted in their blood being mixed with the blood of the sacrifices. Most likely this took place in the temple at Passover because this was the only time laymen were involved in the preparation of animal sacrifices. It is also likely the massacre was propagated by Pontus Pilate, the Roman Governor, because he believed these were conspirators trying to create a rebellion against Rome. Jesus took this opportunity to address the conclusions that were being drawn from this account. These people concluded that those men must have been assassinated in this way because they were being punished by God. But Jesus’ argument is that those who survived must not think that they were far better than those who died. It so happened that they were not in the crowd when the soldiers penetrated the group. Christ reminds them not to be so assured of themselves if they will not repent far worst could even happen to them.
To illustrate the point Jesus pointed to a construction accident that took place in the southwest corner of Jerusalem. A wall collapsed near the pool of Siloam. Eighteen people were killed. Jesus asked the question: Did these people die because they were worse people than those who escaped death? Again, the answer is no. In John 9:1-2 we read about a similar situation, “As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, ‘Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?’” In each case the assumption is: BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO BAD PEOPLE. This is the assumption that people often make. When tragedy strikes, often the cry is: “What have I done wrong?” “Why is God punishing me?” “Why me alone?” This was also in accordance with the popular wisdom among the Jews of Old Testament times. They strongly held that bad things happened only to bad people, just as good things happened only to good people. We see that in the story in the Book of Job. Job’s friends tried to convince him that the reason why those terrible misfortunes befell him must have been some sins that he had committed, knowingly or unknowingly.
- GOD’S WAYS ARE NOT OUR WAYS
Jesus did not hold this popular view. For him, the people who suffer misfortune are not necessarily the worst sinners there are. They may, in fact, be quite innocent. Take the case of infants who die in accidents while some adults survive. Can one conclude that infants were greater sinners than the adult survivors? What about the many cases of children suffering and dying from cancer? What sins have they committed? We know of many people who have survived ghastly accidents and they declare that God protected them (and we believe God did). The nagging question however is: what about those who died? Was it because God cared less about such people? What about Christian people who die in such disasters as plane crashes, earthquakes, sunken ships, etc.? What is God’s role in such catastrophes? It is all a mystery. God alone knows why bad things happen to good people, including innocent children, while a lot of bad people can get away with their crimes—or so it seems.
The “problem of evil” is one of the most perplexing problems in life. If God is in control there must be a reason these things happen. Sin does sometimes lead to tragedy but not all tragedy is due to the sin of the victims. This passage reminds us that we must beware of making hasty judgments about what is happening to others. We should not link sins with tragedies and misfortunes. Some bad things happen as a consequence of the free choices of individuals. For instance, if we are very observant, nature has an automatic way of getting even with those who abuse life’s natural balance. It executes by itself the Law of cause and Effect. For example, when a person eats too much, he will have stomach trouble or suffer obesity. If he drinks or smoke too much, he will endanger his health. If he will experiment with prohibited drugs, he will turn into an addict. Moral life also knows this law of cause and effect. If a man consorts with malefactors, such as armed robbers and gun peddlers, he/she will end up murdered by his own kind and by the law.
However, there are others things, we cannot explain. That does not mean there is no explanation; it just means we do not know or understand the explanation. Here, we cling to God’s declaration in Isaiah 55, “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Is 55:8-9).
- REPENT OR PERISH
Jesus felt no need to continue explaining the ways of God. It has to be enough that we know God is Sovereign; God is Good; and God is Just. Instead of getting philosophical, Jesus changed the focus. Rather than put God or the victim of these disasters on trial, Jesus said we should reflect on the tragedies of life and recognize the fragile nature of life and the sure reality of coming judgment. He points us to the threat of a greater tragedy: dying outside of God’s mercy: “But unless you repent, you will all likewise perish”.
Jesus, therefore, emphasizes that nobody will get away with any crimes, unless he/she repents. That includes those who think wicked thoughts about their neighbours and say wicked things about them, as well as those who do wicked deeds. The day of reckoning may be long coming. But it will surely come. If it does not come in this life, it will surely come on judgement day. That is when sinners who fail to repent will most certainly perish, and forever.
What is this repentance that Jesus summons all people to undergo?
- a) First, it involves humiliation before God because of our sin. The repentant person looks at his/her life (actions, motives, heart) and comes to God as a humble and broken person because of his/her sin. Such a person does not justify, excuse, or try to redefine his/her sin. He/she is ready to confess his/her rebellious attitude and appalling behaviour. He/she comes to God saying: “I will do whatever is necessary to repair this situation and make things right”.
- b) The second dimension to repentance embodies a desire to change direction. This means that the person who truly repents is like the rehabilitated criminal. God calls us to an enduring relationship with Him.
On the other hand, the good news is that EVERY SINNER WHO REPENTS RECEIVES FORGIVENESS FROM GOD. We may not like that. Naturally, we would very much wish to see some particularly wicked sinners pay dearly for their crimes even after they have repented. (Take the example of the elder brother of the Prodigal Son: “But, for this son of yours, when he comes back after swallowing up your property – he and his women – you kill the calf we have been fattening!” (Lk 15:30) Take also the case of the Pharisees grumbling that Jesus is friendly to sinners and tax-collectors like Zacchaeus (Lk 19:7)) Fortunately, God is not like us. As we read in the Book of the Prophet Ezekiel, “I take no pleasure in the death of any—declares the Lord Yahweh—so repent and live” (Ezek 18:32). There is nothing we can do about that. It is God’s way of doing things, again, because “his ways are not our ways, just as his thoughts are not our thoughts” (Is 55:8).
- THE ILLUSTRATION OF THE FIG TREE
Jesus went further to illustrated his point with a story. He narrates the parable of the fig tree. Fig tree was a delicate tree. It takes a big space and needs fertile soil. Because of this great investments, the owner needs to find fruits from the tree within a span of tree years or else he/she would be losing a lot of money. In this case, the master has been visiting the tree for three years and saw no fruit. To save his time and money, he decided to cut it down. Fortunately, the caretaker pleaded that the owner should be patient, and promised to cultivate the ground; he would loosen the dirt around the tree and would fertilize it in a final attempt to get the tree to bear fruit. This request saved the tree for a year. But if the tree still will not bear fruit he will cut it down.
The man who planted the fig tree is God. The fig tree means the chosen people of God, you and me. The vinedresser or worker in the vineyard is Jesus. In justice God the father decides to cut down the fruitless trees. Christ intercedes. He pleads and prays that we will have more time, another chance. For the sake of his son, the heavenly father gives us another chance. That is the story of our life with Christ. We have not borne fruit. We have not done what we were created to do. We have even done what God told us not to do. We have disobeyed his ten commandments. We have not produced. We cannot blame God for being dissatisfied. In his dissatisfaction, God decides to remove us. But Christ intercedes, intervenes. Christ steps between us and God and asks for another chance.
Pleading for us is one of the principle tasks of Christ. He asks for mercy for us. He gets us another chance. Not only does he beg his father for forgiveness, Jesus begs for all the good things we need. That is one reason every official prayer of the church, especially in the Holy Mass, winds up with the plea: through Jesus Christ our lord, or some variation of this thought.
This parable, therefore, has a massage for us, Christians, who profess to know and follow Jesus:
- a) We learn that a true believer is one who bears fruit or shows his/her faith in the way he/she lives life. God expects His followers to actually follow Him! True faith is not evidenced simply by making a declaration. True faith involves actually following Christ!
There is a term that is commonly used in this context: “practical atheist”. The practical atheist is one who professes faith in Jesus Christ yet lives like everyone else. It is said that this is the status of the average church go-er. He/she may have joined the church, he/she may even occasionally attend the church, but he/she is unwilling to follow and serve the Lord in the way he/she lives his/her life. The person may profess good intentions but he/she is like the barren fig tree. He/she is sucking up resources and producing nothing of value. We are hereby reminded that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
- b) We learn that God is patient. The parable tells us the gospel of the second chance. The owner of the vineyard was patient with the tree. He gave it time to start bearing fruit; and then he gave even more time at the request of the caretaker. God knows that change takes time. He understands that we will all have times when we fall down and struggle in our discipleship. God is patient with us. It is always Jesus’ way to give us chance after chance. Peter, the apostle and Paul, the preacher, all gladly witnessed what is means to be given a chance after falling. God is infinitely kind to the person who falls and rises again. He will help us get back on our feet again and again. He wants us to succeed in our discipleship.
- c) We learn God uses various means to help us follow Him (or to bear fruit). Sometimes God digs around in the soil of our lives. Sometimes He turns things upside down in order to get our attention and wake us up. God also fertilizes our lives. Week after week He gives us the life-giving nourishment of His Word through the Bible, the pulpit, Christian radio (Radio Evangelium & Radio Maria) and even many Christian books. The gardeners in our lives, those who continue to help us to move from barrenness to fruitfulness, include our parents, teachers, pastors, friends, and even our enemies, especially those who have motivated us by their bitter criticism, which more often than not turns out to be true. God also uses our memories to remind us of failures, needs, and past evidence of His love and character. God is seeking to make us fruitful even if we are not responding. Those people who fail to respond to this fertilizer reveal their “spiritual deadness”.
- d) We see that God’s patience will not endure forever. His patience has an elastic limit. (Let us not make any mistake here! God’s love endures forever! Note: But his patience is limited.) Jesus says is categorically: “If it (the fig tree) bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down” (Lk 13:9). Time and tide wait for no one. The clock clicks away. Jesus makes it quite clear that there is a final chance. If we keep on refusing God’s “chance after chance” offer, we will be surprised by the final visit of the “Land owner” in an unexpected moment in our lives – the moment to cut us down. Those who profess to be followers of Christ yet refuse to truly follow Him, are doing more harm than good. God will not endure their foolishness forever.
This third Sunday of Lent, Jesus is asking us to take a good look at ourselves and avail of that chance to “fertilize our tree and to see how it can be more fruitful” before it is too late. Aware that death may come anytime, and that for some of us, this may truly be our last year, our last Lent to reform our ways and return to God, we are all challenged by Jesus to grow continually in faith. Instead of covering up our faults, instead of justifying ourselves or blaming others, let’s face the truth about ourselves and make the necessary step to reform.