NEXT SUNDAY’S GOSPEL: THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT
LUKE 13: 1-9 LINK TO USCCB ALL THREE READINGS
Some people told Jesus about the Galileans
whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.
Jesus said to them in reply,
“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!”
And 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.’”
The Lectionary of the Lenten Season provides a bit of a challenge here for those of us who prepare during the week, because parishes and congregations have options regarding the Gospels of weeks three, four, and five. In the A Cycle the Church assigns three masterful compositions of conversion from the Gospel of John (the woman at the well, the man born blind, and the raising of Lazarus.) These three texts are intimately connected to the RCIA and the preparation of the catechumens for baptism. The liturgical guidelines indicate that these three readings from St. John may replace the Gospels of the B and C cycles “especially in places where there are catechumens.” Hopefully, that would be most parishes. However, in checking with my own diocese I see that the regular B and C Cycle Gospels are used except at the parish Mass where the “scrutinies” of the catechumens take place. So, if you happen to attend that Mass in your parish schedule, be prepared for the Gospel of the Samaritan woman at the well, she of the five husbands fame.
The rest of us will be presented with Cycle C’s Lukan reading, which might be titled “when bad things happen to average people.” This is an intriguing piece, and it is tempting to take our eyes off the bigger picture to the rather vivid account of local violence. Joel Green reflects that some interpreters have read the account of Pilate’s misdeed as a test to see if Jesus is pro-Roman or pro-revolutionary. (513ff) Jesus’ own citing of a collapsing tower tends to put this text in the greater horizon of the need to repent.
Think back a moment to the healing of the man born blind in St. John’s Gospel, where the disciples open the narrative with the question of whose sin caused the blindness, the blind man’s, or his parents? There was, Green observes, a certain arrogance of the times that bad things happen to bad people. In truth I suspect that this is still a commonly held belief—that all poor people just need to work harder, for example. For much of my lifetime the New York Times would include in its obituaries of famous people who died of cancer that they were “heavy smokers.”
This particular text is better understood with geography in mind. Jesus is himself a Galilean (Luke 1 and 2), and the ugly hand of Pilate’s abuses had extended into his home setting. Midway through his Gospel, Luke reports that Jesus has “set his face for Jerusalem” where his final act, submission to crucifixion under the auspices of this same Pilate, is even more undeserved than the fate of eighteen bystanders killed by a falling tower. Crucifixion—as a means of capital punishment—was reserved for the worst of the worst. That this fate was to befall Jesus was a scandal to his followers and evidence to his enemies that indeed Jesus was Beelzebub, the devil incarnate. Thus the confusion among Jesus’ followers on Easter and beyond. For our purposes here, Jesus will reaffirm redemptive suffering. Suffering is not a curse but the common lot of man, all of whom stand in need of redemption and conversion. Those of us who have dodged bullets in this life can never disengage ourselves from the wounded.
In fact, the lucky ones should consider themselves so due solely to God’s mercy. This is the point of the second part of the passage, the unfruitful tree. There is a Syrian tale of a failed tree which is quite similar to Luke’s narrative, except for one point: The Syrian farmer follows accepted farming practices of the time and roots out the tree as soon as it peters out. In Luke’s narrative the owner-farmer was inclined to do the same, as the tree had not produced anything in three years. (Is this a parallel to the people who heard Jesus during his three-year ministry?) The gardener, however, implores the master to give the tree one more year. He explains that maybe better treatment and feeding might restore the tree to fruitfulness. Both men are demonstrating extraordinary patience with a tree that most would have abandoned two years ago.
Luke’s intent throughout his Gospel is to connect good preaching with bearing good fruit. One cannot hear the Word of God without a change to productive behavior. We do not find out exactly what happens to this tree in the text, though one thing is certain: if one year later the tree is not producing good figs, both the master and the gardener are in agreement that the tree be cut down.
Luke’s purposes here do not include explaining the problem of evil; why Jesus’ listeners surround him in good health while their confreres in Jerusalem are killed in the market pursuing business as they should to feed their families. If Luke were alive today, I guess he would say that God loved us so much that he gave up all to join us in what so often looks like a rigged card game.
I received word on Monday night that one of our regular blog readers, Bill, died last week after a long and painful illness. Bill had written to me about a month ago. His favorite page was the Tuesday Gospel post. He said that to keep himself focused and spiritually enriched, as well as to manage his pain, he was translating the New Testament from its original Greek to English. We were high school and college classmates. May he rest in peace.