Thursday, February 28, 2013

Events as God's Word on the Need for Personal and Communal Repentance

An Exegetical Reflection on the Gospel of the Third Sunday of Lent, Year C, Luke 13:1-9, March 3, 2013

TODAY’S GOSPEL ON the Lord’s reminders on the need for all to repent (Luke 13:1-9), is part of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem (Luke 9:51-19:27) in which he prepared his disciples for their role after his passion and death, while at the same time continuing to teach his listeners about the in-break of the Kingdom of God to which all must respond.  In the present pericope, which is part of Luke’s travel narrative, Jesus’ teaching was occasioned by the calling of his attention to two incidents.  The first refers to Pontius Pilate’s slaughter of Galileans whose blood he mingled with the sacrifice.  This incident is not attested in other gospels nor in extra-biblical literature, although that Pilate could have done this is not out of his character.  It is probable that these Galileans were pilgrims in Jerusalem.  They were likely in the forecourt of the priests in the Temple, slaughtering their Passover lambs, when the soldiers of Pilate came to liquidate them.  In contrast with this deliberate murder of Galileans was another incident, purely accidental, involving eighteen persons who were killed when the water reservoir of Siloam fell.  Luke is probably referring to a tower that formed part of the old wall of ancient Jerusalem.

            How did the people of Jesus’ time interpret these tragedies?  It would seem that our current popular interpretation of disasters has not been an improvement on theirs!  When tragedies like these happen, we usually see them as God’s punishment.  When we discover that we have a cancer, or our husband goes with another woman, or our only child dies, or when an earthquake shakes cities and a volcano erupts, almost always we ask: what have we done to merit these happenings?  In the Gospel, the Jews saw the collapse of the tower and Pilate’s heinous act no differently.  As in popular wisdom, they associated these with the victims’ sins, or with their having broken the Lord’s command.  Such observation is found in both Old and New Testaments.  In his talk with Job who experienced tragedies and so much suffering, Eliphaz said:  “Reflect now, what innocent person perishes?  Since when are the upright destroyed?  As I see it, those who plow for mischief and sow trouble, reap the same.  By the breath of God they perish, and by the blast of his wrath the are consumed” (Job 4:7-9).  When the disciples saw a man who had been blind from birth, they asked Jesus:  “Rabbi, was it his sin or that of his parents that caused him to be born blind?” (John 9:2).

            For Jesus, however, there is no theological ground for such line of thinking.  He ruled out the idea that a particular sinfulness brings about a particular tragedy.  He did not even countenance the logic that while we are all sinners, some are so sinful that they deserve a particular punishment.  Indeed, one can even assume that in Jerusalem at this time, there were people who were more sinful than the 18 who died probably because they were simply at the wrong time and at the wrong place, and that in Galilee there were likely some who were worst off than those Pilate liquidated.  On the contrary, he rejected the theology of those who inquired, and he refused to explain how in fact God acts.  It makes no sense to question them or justify them by the logic that if people are struck by tragedies, it is because of some particular sins they have committed.  After all, Jesus said that God himself “is good to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Luke 6:35).  He affirmed, however, that sin does spell disaster.  That is why he went on a journey to Jerusalem to challenge the people to listen to his words and be converted to the Kingdom.  They had to be taught of the way to peace.  It was for this reason that he told them the parable of the fig tree (Luke 13:6-9).  The tree has been planted in the vineyard, but because it bore no fruit, the owner decided to cut it down. But then the gardener pleaded with him to leave it for one year (Luke 13:7). 

            What Luke is trying to put across may be stated in a more contemporary application.  Our country may be the most populated Christian nation in the Far East, but it is also a nation of Christians who are sinners.   The effect of our sinfulness can be seen in the widening gap between the rich and the poor, in the way we do our politics, in the devaluation of the peso, and in the consumerist society that many are enthralled to, to name a few.  But as the responsorial psalm says, the Lord is kind and merciful (Ps 103:8).  Instead of striking us down, he has given us a period of grace.  We saw it working in EDSA I, when we dislodged a dictator by the power of prayer.  But it seems people refused to listen to the Lord, despite his word that we should listen to his son (Luke 9:35, Gospel of 2nd Sunday of Lent C).  We simply changed the cosmetics of the nation without changing the core values of the people.   But God is rich in mercy.  Once again, we were given another manifestation of his activity with EDSA II.  A man of faith sees this event as God’s revelation of his presence among us.  EDSA II is another call for us to change the way we handle our politics, culture and economy.  We have to alter our orientation, we have to say no to—among others--traditional politics, the culture of gambling, unbridled capitalism, corruption, injustice and violation of human rights. 

A man of faith--who has been observing how we behave politically, economically and culturally despite the occasions of grace, like EDSA I and II--could weep, probably in the same way that Jesus wept at the sight of Jerusalem, because he could foresee what was to happen to the city after it rejected his message, what with the factions and intrigues among the inhabitants (Luke 19:41-44).  So, once again, we have to listen to God’s only Son, who calls us to repentance and to recognize his path to peace (Luke 19:41).  Otherwise, we will all perish as a nation like the passengers of the Titanic who went down with the ship.  The punch, in other words, is: while there is time, let us listen to Jesus and change our lives both as individuals and as a nation.


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