LENT III -C - 16 LUKE 13. 1-9
In last week’s gospel Jesus is warned by some Pharisees that Herod plans to kill him implying that it would be in Jesus’ best interests to avoid Jerusalem. But his destiny lies in the Holy City, and neither the threat of Herod, nor the cross looming in the distance are able to persuade him to change course.
In today’s gospel Jesus is again on the road to Jerusalem traveling through the region of Galilee. Some locals are following him and when they learn of his destination they too, like the Pharisees in last week’s gospel, try to deter him from continuing the journey.
They tell him of a recent event which occurred within the courtyard of the Temple where pilgrims from Galilee were massacred by Pilate’s soldiers; their blood being mingled with blood of the sacrifices they offered to God. How could this happen? What did they do to deserve their fate? It was a shocking report.
Jesus responds by reporting on the 18 who were killed in a construction accident in Siloam, a small area of Jerusalem, close to the center of the city, and a little south of the Temple itself. Did these victims deserve what happened to them any more than the pilgrims who were killed in the Temple courtyard?
Christ draws the conclusion from both incidents that those who perished were not worse offenders in the eyes of God than those who escaped. It was a shocking response to those who heard him. Instead of what Jesus said, they were looking for an explanation, or some way to make sense out of it all.
His point, however, is clear and he repeats it twice: “unless you repent you will perish as they did.” By doing so, Jesus refutes the Jewish doctrine of retribution that states that those receive special punishment must be guilty of a greater sin. What Jesus is saying is, that all are guilty before God; all are in need of repentance.
Why is it when we sometimes hear of certain tragedies we blame the victims for their circumstances? We ask, “I wonder what they did to deserve the misfortune?” What offense did they commit to bring such hardship onto themselves? Implicit in the question is the connection between sin and suffering.
Behind the asking is a need to separate ourselves from “them.” We tell ourselves that what happened to “them” cannot happen to us. By doing so we put distance between ourselves and those who suffered. What we really want to know is why? We want an explanation, a cause and effect equation that we can wrap our minds around in order to make sense out of something that seems so senseless.
That’s really what those who approached Jesus in today’s gospel wanted to know. Why were those killed in the Temple courtyard? What did they do to bring that on themselves? Why were those crushed at Siloam? Were they such terrible sinners that such suffering befell them?
By making his point, that unless those who are asking repent the same will befall them, Jesus is shifting the focus from “them” to “all of us.” He doesn’t give an explanation, rather he rejects the notion that such tragedies come to people in some kind of payment for their sins. His point, again, is that all sinners will perish unless they repent. And there is an urgency in his appeal for all to do so.
The sign of the cross traced on our foreheads with the ashes of last year’s Palm Sunday celebration reminds us of our vulnerability to sin, suffering, and death thus our continual need to repent and renew our faith as none of us knows when our journey will end. As I have said before, being a Christian does not inoculate us from any of the above.
With that in mind, the question is how do we respond to pain, suffering, and death? Does it lead to faith or despair? Does it lead to apathy or compassion? The Church’s calendar was built around the deaths of the early martyrs. The martyrs were and are people who die in such a way as to witness to their faith. We remember them as examples of how to respond to the testing of one’s faith. Their witness is meant to strengthen our faith.
On the other hand, those who despair and disbelieve because of their suffering and death weakens other people’s faith in God. It is not, however, the circumstances of their death that makes their witness for or against God. It is our response to their death. Illnesses, accidents, human tragedies kill people. But they do not necessarily kill life or faith. It is how we respond to those situations that matters.
Today’s gospel concludes with a parable, that at first glance may seem out of place with Christ’ focus on repentance, but is it? Jesus has been seeking the fruit of repentance throughout his ministry. So far, apart from a handful of followers, who are themselves not really sure of who he is and what he is all about, Jesus has found none; no repentance, not even in the cities where most of his miracles/healings had been done.
He is prepared, then, to give Israel, and particularly Jerusalem, the Temple, and the ruling priests one more chance. If they refuse, their doom is sealed. We know how they responded. The parable of the fig tree at the close of today’s gospel betrays the hope of Jesus as he approached the Holy City and reminds us that there is still time to heed his call to repent, still time to receive God’s forgiveness, still time to live with faith and compassion.
The journey is not over until God says it is, until then, we continue our journey towards the new Jerusalem knowing, as today’s collect prays: “that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves, but, with God’s help, we may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.” Amen+