Our Lord’s words today are difficult to understand:
Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way that 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.
The attitude of Jesus’ contemporaries to the tragic deaths of those Galileans whose blood Pilate mingled with that of the sacrifices they were offering or of those by chance killed by the collapse of Siloam tower was symptomatic of the Jewish people’s understanding of their calling as People of God. They had come to regard themselves as specially loved and chosen by God for their own material advantage and spiritual precedence over all Gentiles and pagans: if they kept God’s law literally, as closely and exactly as possible, they thought they could expect Him to benefit them – especially in their relations with surrounding nations – in all the circumstances of their normal lives. They even came to the think that they could, if necessary, remind God of His duty, or even, through radicals such as the Siccarii, seek to force His hand, to come to their aid against their enemies and glorify His Name before them. They had begun first of all to forget, then they went on to overlook, before ultimately denying, the fact that they were specially chosen by God expressly to serve as His instrument for the spiritual conversion of the Gentiles, who might thus become one with Israel in the universal, and ultimately eternal, family of God’s adopted children.
We learn how very serious this was in Jesus’ eyes by the fact that He doubled on their original tragedy and emphasised His own words -- which were in no way pleasant hearing for His audience -- by repeating them exactly:
I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did.
As we know, there was no repentance by the Jewish body as a whole and they did perish at the hands of the Romans; their joy and crown -- Jerusalem the golden -- was raised to the ground from which they were banned and, as a people, they were scattered far and wide, at the best tolerated not welcomed wherever they went.
However, those words of Jesus are of perennial significance, no longer for the political situation of the Jewish nation, but for the spiritual awareness of the corporate body of Christians and the individual souls of all believers.
Do you think because these Galileans who suffered in this way, or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them, were greater sinners than all other Galileans, than everyone else who lived (at that time) in Jerusalem?
By no means I tell you, (and) if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did.
Therefore, those who perished were not greater sinners before the world. For Jesus is not simply saying that they were not shown to be greater sinners by their unfortunate end, He is saying quite categorically and authoritatively that they were by no means greater sinners than all around. Now that is of the utmost importance for modern attitudes among Catholics and Christians even today, because many, so very easily and quickly spring to the defense of their own flagging, failing, and lapsing Christian witness or Catholic observance by words such as, ‘I live as good a life as other people’, ‘I am certainly no worse than many others and better than a lot of them’.
After Jesus’ words today, that is no justification, defense, or excuse whatsoever!
‘There would be no Catholics left if my failings are considered so bad’. Perhaps, that might be in some measure true ... but precisely, the Jewish audience Jesus was addressing with the words:
if you do not repent, you will all perish
did largely perish! Jerusalem was flattened, millions died in the Jewish war with Rome, and the nation was scattered far and wide among the Gentiles and pagans. That is one understanding of the word ‘perish’ ... there is also a spiritual meaning and application for it, perish before God.
And that other word ‘repent’ ... what does that really mean in this context?
As I said at the beginning, Our Lord’s words today are difficult to understand!
‘Repent’ means ‘change your mind, your attitude, turn from your evil ways back to looking for, serving, answering to, God above all’; it can be regarded as a condensation of those other (again very difficult to modern ears) words of Jesus:
Whoever loves father or mother more than Me is not worthy of Me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than Me is not worthy of Me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow Me is not worthy of Me. Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for My sake will find it.
Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword. (Matthew 10:33, 37-39)
‘Repent’ can be accurately understood as the effort a disciple needs to make in order to understand, appreciate, and appropriately adopt into his own style of life, those and other like words of Jesus, where He demands first place and supreme love for God, and for Himself as Son sent by the Father, where He calls for love of neighbour and death to selfishness.
In the first ‘tragedy’ of the Galileans whose blood was mingled with that of their sacrifices we can see that even at worship, even at our Sunday Mass, impenitence is not excluded. We are all called to Our Lord, to Holy Mass each Sunday as was Moses called in the first reading, Moses! Moses! Note how Moses answered, Here I am Lord as he walked towards the burning bush:
God said, ‘Come no nearer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.’
Moses had been drawing close to God from curiosity:
I must go over to look at this remarkable sight and see why the bush is not burned.
God so urgently required ‘repentance’ that, as we are told:
Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
We too should be present at Sunday Mass with a sincerely repentant attitude, wanting simply and solely to worship God: to learn of Him and the glory of His goodness, wisdom and beauty; to join in declaring (singing) His praises in the psalms and canticles; to seek His will, His way forward for us, as we hear the Scriptures read and the homily delivered; and, perhaps above all else, we should be most intent and committed in offering Jesus’ sacrifice with Jesus Himself through the ministry of the priest, most sincere and humble in joining our own sacrifice of self with that of Jesus to the Father, for the praise and glory of His most holy name.
Now it is eminently possible for some, even perhaps many, to leave Sunday Mass without really having participated in it at all, yet still regarding themselves as good as anyone, with no easy-to-see sins troubling their conscience: that is to be in a state calling forth those words of Jesus:
if you do not repent, you will all perish.
Jesus does not demand perfection of us, He does, however, require humble aspiration and sincere endeavour to walk perseveringly in His footsteps.
We know nothing explicit about those crushed by the collapsing tower of Siloam, but Saint Paul gave us advice adapted to our every-day living:
Do not desire evil things; do not grumble; and, whoever thinks he is standing secure, take care not to fall.
Do you fear that all these dangers, all these warnings might make life burdensome and tiring for you? Warnings are not against you, they are only to protect and help you, they are like the precious Blood of Jesus being poured out to:
Cultivate and fertilize (our souls) that (they) may bear fruit for the future;
and the dangers only loom ahead because infinitely more wonderful blessings are already awaiting us in God’s great love and Providence:
I have come to rescue them and lead them into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.