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Sunday 20 March 2022: Lent 3

Calamity, Conversion and Divine Mercy
Luke 13:1-9

By Jonathan Brandon
Parish Priest, St Vincent de Paul Altrincham

Context: Sunday Mass, congregation of 150 adults, mainly middle-aged to elderly, largely from professional backgrounds

Aim: to draw out the meaning from a possibly obscure passage – that there is not a connection between guilt and suffering and to underline the universal call to repentance

When things are going wrong it’s not unusual for people to ask themselves: ‘Where have I gone wrong? I have done all the right things: I come to Church, I pray, I do what I can for the poor. And yet all these things are going wrong in my life. What is it, God, that I have done wrong?’ At some level, we can be tempted to think that our relationship with God is transactional. I do this for you, God; you do this for me. When things are going wrong, we then blame God for, as we see it, reneging on the deal. In the Gospel today we see something of this transactional approach.

The people arrive and tell Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with that of their sacrifices. The story is not reported in any of the literature outside of the Bible and is in fact unique to Luke’s Gospel. It may be that the people who tell Jesus the story are trying to set a trap for him. If he says nothing, Jesus can be accused of lacking patriotism by failing to challenge the occupying power; if he condemns Pilate he will surely be reported to the Roman authorities. But Jesus chooses to ignore their trap and to respond to the question of whether these Galileans suffered because they were greater sinners than other Galileans. Implicit in their questions is the belief that misfortune is the consequence of sin. Their calculation is that those that suffered in this way suffered because they were bad. Our calculation can be that we should not suffer because we are good.

Jesus answers the question directly. Those who suffered at the hands of Pilate are no worse than anyone else. Jesus adds his own disaster story and makes it clear those who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell were also no worse than anyone else.

In his memoirs the former US President Clinton recounts that he was convinced that he could effect real change because of the enthusiasm which accompanied his election and what he saw as a thirst for change. However, he quickly came to realise that everyone is in favour of change in general, but no one wants it if it calls on them to change. We see this dynamic at play in the Gospel and in our lives. Jesus makes it clear that all of us stand in need of the mercy of God and all of us need to repent, to change from the inside out.

The people of Jesus’ day and we today can fall into the trap of splitting the world into big sinners and little sinners; and we place ourselves firmly it the latter group. It’s the big sinners who are punished by being massacred by unjust rulers and killed by falling towers. But the call of Lent and the call of Jesus in the Gospel today is that we all need to change and seek God’s mercy.

The parable of the fig tree that we also hear in today’s Gospel reminds us that repentance is not simply a question of avoiding sin but also of bearing fruit in the works of love. The good news of the parable as we continue our Lenten journey is that God is merciful and patient as he waits for us to bear fruit.

Jesus does not ignore our question or that of the people gathered round him in the Gospel about the connection between suffering and innocence. The dialogue with the people that we hear in the Gospel today takes place after Jesus has steadfastly set his face towards Jerusalem, the city where he will suffer and die and rise again for his people. His is the innocent Galilean blood spilt under Pontius Pilate for the salvation of the entire world. In the words of the French poet Paul Claudel ‘Jesus did not come to explain away suffering or remove it. He came to fill it with His presence.’

Our relationship with God can never be transactional because the death and resurrection of Jesus shows us the generosity and graciousness of God. In any transaction we would most certainly be in his debt. The event of Easter that we will celebrate in a few weeks’ time reminds us in our suffering, deserved or undeserved, that Jesus has filled it with His presence.

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