All three of today’s readings speak of God’s mercy and compassion in disciplining His children by occasional punishment, while giving them many “second chances” despite their repeated sins. Although God’s love for us is constant and consistent, He will not save us without our co-operation. That is why He invites us during Lent to repent of our sins and to renew our lives by producing fruits. The first reading tells us how God shows His mercy to His chosen people by giving them Moses as their leader and liberator. The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (v 6) reveals Himself to Moses from the burning bush and assures Moses of His Divine presence with His people and of His awareness of their sufferings in Egypt. He declares His intention of using Moses as the leader who will rescue His enslaved people. Then He renews the promise He made to the patriarchs (v 8), to give them a “land flowing with milk and honey.” In the Responsorial Psalm (Ps 103) the Psalmist reminds us of God’s mercy: “He pardons all your iniquities; He heals all your ills. He redeems your life from destruction; He crowns you with kindness and compassion…. Merciful and gracious is the Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness.” The second reading warns us that our merciful God is also a disciplining God. Paul reminds the Christians of Corinth that they must learn from the sad experience of the Israelites who were punished for their sins by a merciful and just God. The merciful and gracious God is also just and demanding, and, hence, they must be free from sexual sins and idolatry. Today’s Gospel reading emphasizes the Christian call to metanoia, which means conversion, repentance, and inner change, and heartens us with the reality of God’s patient mercy. It explains how God disciplines His people, invites them to repent of their sins, to renew their lives, and to produce the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Citing two tragic events, Jesus exhorts the Jews to repent and reform their lives. With the parable of the barren fig tree, he also warns them that the merciful God will not put up with them indefinitely. Although God patiently waits for sinners to repent, giving them grace to do so, He will not wait forever. Time may run out; therefore, timely repentance is necessary.
Jesus uses two local tragedies to teach us about our need for repentance and a renewal of life. The slaughter of the Galileans by Pilate, recorded in today’s Gospel reading, is unknown outside Luke’s Gospel. But the Jewish historian Josephus reports how Pilate disrupted a religious gathering of Samaritans on Mt. Gerizim with the slaughter of the participants. On another occasion, Pilate killed many Galilean Jews who protested when he appropriated money from the Temple treasury to build an aqueduct in Jerusalem to obtain a better water supply for the pilgrims. But Luke presents these two real incidents as one tragedy, which occurred in the Temple premises. Even though it was Pilate who commanded the atrocity to be carried out, the natural assumption at the time was to think that the victims were particularly guilty and must have somehow “deserved” it. Some Bible scholars think that Jesus is simply predicting the foreseeable political and military consequences of not embracing Jesus’ call to “Kingdom ethics”—love, forgiveness, and non-retaliation.
Jesus proceeds to connect his warning to another episode, namely, what appears to have been an accident related to the renovation work on the control tower of the water supply scheme at Siloam, in which eighteen people died. The Jews interpreted this tragedy as God’s punishment of the workers who had co-operated with Pilate in his sacrilegious aqueduct project. Jesus denies that either the Galileans or the eighteen people suffered because of their sins, but he calls his listeners to repent lest they suffer for theirs. In fact, Jesus presents both these incidents as timely reminders of the need for all to repent, saying, “… unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” Repentance is given major emphasis in Luke’s Gospel (3:3; 3:8; 5:32; 13:3, 5; 15:7; 16:30; 17:3; 24:47). The call to repent of one’s sins always includes the threat of Divine retribution if one does not repent and the promise of forgiveness if one does. By citing two tragic events, Jesus warns his listeners not to spend their time speculating about the guilt of others, but to concentrate on examining their own lives, and their own need for repentance and forgiveness.
We know that tragic events can occur randomly, as in the cases of the Galileans and the eighteen Jerusalemites and they have nothing to do with the guilt or innocence of the victims. For example, a tornado that destroys a nightclub also destroys a Church. An earthquake or tsunami kills the saints as well as the sinners in the affected area. Drunk drivers kill innocent people. Religious fanatics, terrorists, and suicide bombers cause the untimely deaths of good as well as of bad people. Violent people, with or without provocation, injure their loved ones. Only a few of us will have a burning-bush experience, but all of us have struggled to understand why tragedy seems to befall innocent people. In all these cases, we need to trust in Divine mercy, believing that God is with us, and God is on our side, even in those situations we cannot explain. Jesus’ life is the clearest evidence that a person’s suffering is not proof of that person’s sin. While sin can lead to tragedy, not every tragedy is the result of sin.
Jesus then goes on to tell the parable of the barren fig tree. In this parable, the owner comes year after year to the fig tree, and year after year, it fails to bear any fruit. In frustration he tells the custodian to cut it down as it has never borne any fruit. The custodian asks for the owner to give it one more year, a second chance to bear fruit.
God always gives us a second chance. The prodigal son, returning to the father, was welcomed as a son, not treated as a slave. The repentant Peter was made the head of the Church. The persecutor Saul was made Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles. During Lent, we, too, are given another chance to repent and return to our Heavenly Father’s love. We are also expected to give others another chance when they ask our forgiveness. God would like to use each one of us as the “gardener” in the parable to help Him cultivate our families and communities and enrich them with grace. Let us thank God for using others to help us bear fruit. Grace is everywhere. Let us always cooperate with grace, especially during Lent.