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The Third Sunday of Lent, Year C

The Fruits of Repentance

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...[b]ut the first two, the story of the Galileans whom Pilate massacred and the story of the people who were killed when the tower of Silo’am fell, those are only here in Luke’s gospel. We wouldn’t know about these teachings of Jesus if we didn’t have the Gospel of Luke. So let’s walk through each one of these three examples and try to figure out what Jesus is talking about.

The first one has to do with this massacre of the Galileans by Pontius Pilate, the Roman procurator. Now, this event that Jesus is describing here is otherwise unknown to us from ancient history; Josephus doesn’t record it, no Roman records that we know of account for it, so only Luke’s gospel tells us about it. What we can infer from it is that apparently there were some Galileans in Jerusalem and they were in the temple offering sacrifice, as Galilean pilgrims would want to do, and something happened in which Pilate (and his soldiers) massacred them, and evidently Pilate not only put them to death, but he mingled their blood with the blood of the animal sacrifices that they were offering in the temple. In other words, he desecrated the temple sacrifices with the blood of these Jews that he had massacred. Obviously, this would have been something that would have been a notorious act on Pilate’s part, and Jesus appears to assume here that his disciples will have heard about this massacre (about this tragedy). His point in bringing the event up is to say this: “Do you assume that just because these Galileans were killed by Pilate that they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” In other words, what Jesus is saying here is that the suffering and death of these Galileans was not necessarily a result of their own sinfulness. This was a pretty common assumption that he has to correct in the 1st Century AD. We’ll see him do this on several occasions, like in the Gospel of John when the Apostles will say they see the man more born blind and they say, “Who’s sinned? This man or his parents?” Jesus says, “Well actually neither of them sinned. God has allowed this to take place for some greater purpose.” In our day, we have the opposite problem. People will assume there is no connection whatsoever between sin and suffering. In Jesus’ day, it was the other way around. If people saw someone who had experienced a tragedy or suffering or death, they would assume “Ah well, they must have done something wrong and they’re getting their punishment now through this physical tragedy or this physical suffering.” And so Jesus says, “No, that’s not the case in this instance. However, unless you repent you will all likewise perish.” Now, I have to say, this is one of Jesus’ less popular sayings. You’ll see bumper stickers of the golden rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”, or of John 3:16: “God so love the world that he sent his only begotten son.” I’ve never seen a bumper sticker of Luke 13:3, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” This is not one of Jesus’ more popular sayings, but he reiterates it twice with a second example of the tower of Silo’am. It’s obviously something very significant.

He moves into a second example of a tragedy, in this case it’s an accident, it’s not a massacre. Evidently there were people working on repairing the tower of Silo’am, which was in Jerusalem — you might recall again from the Gospel of John, he mentions the pool of Silo’am. So evidently the tower was a tower nearby that pool and it was being rebuilt or maybe it just crumbled and fell, but apparently it was such a traumatic event that 18 people died in the collapse of this tower. And so Jesus says, “Do you think the people who died in that tragedy were worse sinners than everyone else in Jerusalem?” Obviously (again) the answer is no, but then Jesus affixes to that statement, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” So, what’s he getting at here? Well, again, the thrust of these two examples appears to be that on the one hand, you should not assume that physical death is necessarily the result of a particular sin. On the other hand, there’s a kind of riddle built in here where Jesus is saying, “If you don’t repent, you too will perish.” Now, this is a classic example of how Jesus’ questions are often paradoxical; they are not clear in what they mean. They are deliberately phrased as riddles or parables that are meant to make you think. If he’s saying, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish”, it would seem to contradict what he just said. If death is not necessarily a result of sin, then why will I perish if I don’t repent? Well the answer to the riddle is he’s not talking primarily about physical death. He’s talking about spiritual death. He’s talking about being cut off from God. He’s talking about what he says elsewhere in the gospels, the famous saying, “What does it profit a man, if he gains his life but loses his soul?” Wait, what does he mean? How can you lose your soul without losing your life? Well he’s talking about not the loss of physical life but as kind of spiritual death through being excluded from the kingdom of God. That’s the perishing he’s describing here.

And before we move on, I would note here that what Jesus is referring to here, although we don’t have any evidence either of the tower of Silo’am or of the massacre of the Galileans by Pilate from other historical records, there’s really no reason to doubt the truth of this event, especially when we know that this accords perfectly with the kind of person Pilate was. I just want to add this (just to kind of give you a sense of the realism of Jesus’ words here): In the 1st Century Jewish author Philo of Alexandria (who’s actually a contemporary of Jesus), he has a book called the “Embassy to Gaius” in which he describes the kind of person Pilate was, and it matches up exactly with what we see not just in the gospels as a whole with regard to Jesus’ passion, but with regard to this specific episode Jesus is describing here of Pilate not just killing Galileans, but actually desecrating the temple and mingling their blood with the sacrifices. Listen to this quote from Philo of Alexandria:

[Pilate] feared least they might in reality go on an embassy to the emperor, and might impeach him with respect to other particulars of his government, in respect of his corruption, and his acts of insolence, and his rapine, and his habit of insulting people, and his cruelty, and his continual murders of people untried and uncondemned, and his never ending, and gratuitous, and most grievous inhumanity.

So that’s Philo’s description of Pontius Pilate from the 1st Century AD. The idea that Pilate was cruel, that he was inhumane, that he would execute people without trial or who were in fact innocent, accords perfectly with what Jesus is describing here in Luke 13 about the massacre of the Galileans. It just points out the fact that these two examples that Jesus’ is using here, of the tower of Silo’am and the Galileans massacre, would have been well known and would have driven home this whole question of the relationship between suffering and sin, and sin and death: “What is the causal relationship here?”

Now, if you have any doubts about the spiritual death and the meaning of Jesus’ words there, you just have to look at the third example that he gives in Luke 13...

...In closing, I’d just like to end with one more insight from the catechism, because I think, at least in my experience as a teacher, Jesus’ words on repentance from Luke 13 for today, they can be kind of difficult for people to take in. Even just the word repent, in contemporary society that word gets associated in secular context with people who stand on street corners and shout that the end of the world is near and everyone needs to repent. It gets associated with a kind of Christianity that might seem fanatical or judgmental or angry or whatnot. I just want to be clear here that the meaning of the word repentance, what does it actually mean? If you understand what it means, it shouldn’t be something to be afraid of. It shouldn’t be a negative thing. It’s actually a very powerful and positive thing. And I love the definition of repentance from the Catechism of The Catholic Church, paragraph 1431. Listen to what the catechism says about what repentance is and what it means:

Interior repentance is a radical reorientation of our whole life, a return, a conversion to God with all our heart, an end of sin, a turning away from evil, with repugnance toward the evil actions we have committed. At the same time it entails the desire and resolution to change one’s life, with hope in God’s mercy and trust in the help of his grace. This conversion of heart is accompanied by a salutary pain and sadness which the Fathers called animi cruciatus (affliction of spirit) and compunctio cordis (repentance of heart).

Notice in this passage from the catechism, what does repentance involve? A radical reorientation of our whole life, a return to God with all of our heart, and end to sin, turning away from evil. Are those good things? Is it good to turn away from evil? Is it good to radically reorient our life toward God? Is it good to turn to him with our whole heart and our whole mind? Yeah. Is it good to seek an end of evil? Yes. How many of us would not like evil to be driven out of our lives? How many of us don’t want to change, to be better people, to turn away from the things that we do that hurt others and hurt ourselves? This “repentance” should be one of the most popular words in the Bible, because it means turning away from evil and turning to goodness. It means breaking the chains of sin and living a life of freedom and joy and happiness that Christ came to give us. “I came that you might have life and have it abundantly.” I think the part that’s difficult for us is that last part, “repugnance towards the evil actions we’ve committed”. It’s hard for us sometimes to just admit that we’ve done wrong, to learn to hate the things we’ve done that are wrong. It’s especially difficult when you’re young and proud, I think as you get older it starts to get easier, as you look back on your life, to see the ways you’ve wounded others and to actually have sorrow about those things and to want to stop. I hope that’s what happens as we grow old, that’s at least what should happen as we gain some perspective on life.

But I just want to bring up the fact that both these things, the affliction of spirit and repentance of heart, those are healthy, human reactions to sin and evil and things we do in our lives that are wrong. We should all feel that way about sin. So although the word “repentance” has kind of gotten a bad rap, I think, when we understand what it really means, a desire to change our lives for the better, a desire to turn away from that which is evil, and that which is harmful to ourselves and others, there is every reason for us to heed the words of Jesus in this week’s gospel. Unless you repent, unless you change, unless you convert your heart to God, unless you turn away from evil, unless you stop doing things that harm yourself and harm others, unless you learn to hate the sins in your own heart more than you hate everyone else’s sins, you’re going to perish too; you’re not going to bear good fruit. And God put us in this world so that we can bear good fruit, so that we can love him above all things and so that we can love our neighbors as ourselves...

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