3rd. Sunday of Lent, (C)
Our Lord’s words in today’s Gospel reading need careful consideration:
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!
The attitude of Jesus’ contemporaries to the tragic deaths of those Galileans – probably nationalist activists such as Zealots or Sicarii -- whose blood Pilate had mingled with that of the sacrifices they were offering, or those killed by chance at the collapse of the Siloam tower, was symptomatic of the Jewish people’s understanding of their calling as People of God. They had come to think that being God’s specially Chosen People involved spiritual precedence over Gentiles and pagans and at least a certain measure of material advantage in their regard whereby, if they observed God’s Law as closely and exactly as possible, they could expect God to protect and bless them as a nation in their relations with the surrounding nations, and as law-observant individuals in all the circumstances of their personal and social lives. Such ideas made the recent tragedies very difficult to understand for the generality of people, for surely, those involved must have sinned against God! After all, some of the Chosen People had even come to think that they could, if necessary, remind God of His duty towards them, while a small few others even thought they could try -- through radicals such as the Zealots or Sicarii -- to force God’s hand, and oblige Him to come to their aid against their enemies and glorify His name before them. Having begun to overlook, then, qúite forget, they ultimately came to reject the very idea that they had been specially chosen by God to serve as His instruments for the spiritual GOOD of the Gentiles, who might thus become one with Israel in the universal and ultimately eternal, family of God’s adopted children.
We may learn how very serious this travesty of God’s intentions was in Jesus’ eyes by the fact that He doubled on their original tragedy of the Galileans by Himself recalling those killed at Siloam, and then repeating emphatically His own words – which were most certainly not pleasant for His hearers – I TELL YOU, IF YOU DO NOT REPENT, YOU WILL ALL PERISH AS THEY DID.
Those words of Jesus are of perennial significance for the spiritual awareness of the corporate body of Christians and the individual souls of all believers:
Do you think because those Galileans who suffered, 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!”
We Catholics and Christians know that those who perished as pedestrians at Siloam or as worshippers in the Temple precincts, were not greater sinners than other Jews or Galileans in Jerusalem at that time, for Jesus is not merely saying, opining, that they were not shown to be greater sinners by their unfortunate end, He is saying quite categorically – on His own authority -- that they were by no means greater sinners than all around them. And on that basis Jesus then went on to warn His hearers:
I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!
PERISH AS THEY DID: dear People of God, notice that Jesus is not saying that His hearers are likely to suffer from Pilate’s soldiers as did the Galileans, or be killed by another tower of the city falling down suddenly upon them. No! But He is saying that for those of His hearers who remain unrepentant, death will come upon them just as unexpectedly and disastrously-for-them as it had fallen on those now ‘famous’ unfortunates.
That, of course, is of the utmost importance for modern attitudes among unrepentant Catholics and Christians of our times because many so very easily spring to the defence 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 no worse than many others and a lot better than some of them.’ Or more recently, ‘Look at all the scandals going on in the Church, I am much better than that!’
After Jesus’ words today that is no justification, defence, or excuse whatsoever, in such words, which can all be summed up by the old banality: ‘There would be no Catholics left if my failings were considered so very bad’. Perhaps there might even seem to be a measure of truth in such an attitude for some people but, most certainly, it had provided no excuse whatsoever for the Jewish audience Jesus was addressing with those words, IF YOU DO NOT REPENT, YOU WILL ALL PERISH, for they did, in fact, largely perish! Jerusalem was flattened, millions died in the Jewish war with Rome, and the nation was scattered far and wide among the Gentiles.
How many of those lackadaisical, unrepentant Jerusalemites had convinced themselves with thoughts such as, ‘I am as good as …’ and ‘there would be no Israelites left if …’
And what does that word ‘repent’ mean in this context?
Our first reading was all about Moses himself having to learn about the sublime HOLINESS of God before speaking in His name to the enslaved Israelites; our second reading from St. Paul to the Corinthians was a warning against spiritual self-satisfaction, attending only to the formalities of Christian worship while ignoring the duties of Christian morality and witness in their daily living. As for Jesus in our Gospel passage, you have heard how He warned explicitly about lack of repentance before God and of the dangers of fruitlessness in a Christian life:
He told them this parable: “There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. (So) cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’ He said to him in reply, ‘Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not, you can cut it down.’”
Bearing all these aspects in mind, we can say that ‘repent’ means ‘change your mind, your attitude, turn from your evil ways, turn to serving, looking for and answering to, the God of all holiness and goodness, the Father of all believers in Jesus’; it can be regarded as a condensation of those other (again very difficult to modern ears) words of Jesus:
Do not think that I have come to bring peace upon the earth. I have come to bring not peace but the sword.
Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for My sake will find it. (Matthew 10, 34-39)
‘Repent’ can be accurately understood as the effort a disciple needs to make in order understand, appreciate, and appropriately adopt into his own style of life, those and other words of Jesus where He demands first place and supreme love for God and for Himself as Son sent by the Father, and where He calls for love of neighbour and death to selfishness.
We are all called to Our Lord, to Holy Mass each Sunday, as was Moses called in the first reading, Moses! Moses! 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:
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 His glory and goodness, wisdom and beauty; to join in declaring or (as best we can, and if the sopranos, God bless ‘em, will allow!) in 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, above all, we should be most intent and committed in offering Jesus’ sacrifice with Jesus Himself through the ministry of the priest, most humbly and sincerely joining our own sacrifice of self with that of Jesus to His Father, for the praise and glory of His most holy Name.
Now it is most desirable for us to leave Holy Mass not only with a repentant and grateful heart but also with a certain awareness of how we can make progress in our efforts both to please and draw ever closer to the God and Father Who so loves us. Saint Paul gave us such 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 warnings might make life burdensome and tiring for you? Look at the Western world around you! Warnings are not against you, they are to protect and help you:
Cultivate and fertilize (your souls) that (they) may bear fruit for the future;
they are like the precious Blood of Jesus poured out to:
To rescue us and lead us into a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey,
a land, our homeland, where the Father is waiting to embrace us as did the all-forgiving father in Jesus’ parable:
So, he got up and went back to his father. While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him. His son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you; I no longer deserve to be called your son.’ But his father ordered his servants, ‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. Take the fattened calf and slaughter it. Then let us celebrate with a feast, because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.’ (Luke 15:20–24)
The ‘boy’ become the ‘prodigal’ had suitably repented …. So may we all do likewise, in Jesus, by His most Holy Spirit, for the Father.