NB. Preached this one at the vigil Mass this evening. I thought it bombed. . .big time. By the time I finished, I'd already decided to start over for tomorrow's Masses. However, after Mass I got a lot of good feedback. When I mentioned totally revising it, one of my "on-site" reviewers here in the parish said, "Nope. Don't do it. One of your best." So, now I'm conflicted. Maybe it needs tightening up? I dunno. . .
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
St. Dominic Church/Our Lady of the Rosary
“If you do not repent, you will all perish!” We might expect to hear a warning like this from a televangelist, or read it on a sign down on Bourbon St. during Mardi Gras. That it comes from our Lord is a bit unsettling. . .but not entirely unexpected. The Jews of Jesus' day we used to hearing prophets shout warnings of impending doom and admonitions to repent lest the Divine Wrath smite them dead. It must've seemed like God's balled-up fist was always just hovering over Jerusalem ready to crush the whole sinful lot of them at any moment. Given our Lord's mission to preach the Good News of God's mercy to sinners, it's unlikely that he's shouting doomsday warnings just to scare folks into repentance. In fact, his call to repentance is an answer to an implied question. Some locals report to Jesus the details of two recent disasters—one an accident and the other a slaughter. The implied question is: if sin leads to judgment and death, why were only some of those involved in these incidents killed? Jesus answers, in effect, “You're worrying about the wrong thing. You are all going to die one day. Get right with God before it's too late!” Our capacity for worrying over the wrong things is nearly limitless; however, our time on this earth is not. Therefore, repent and bear good fruit. . .before the season ends.
No one will ever accuse Pontus Pilate of being friendly to the people he ruled. The locals report to Jesus that Pilate slaughtered a group of Galileans at worship and mixed their blood with the blood of the ritual sacrifice. A horrific desecration. Luke is our only historical source for this incident; however, the great Jewish historian, Josephus,* tells us that a group of Samaritans were summoned to Mt. Gerizzim—their holiest site—to worship at a shrine of relics placed there by Moses himself. When the well-armed Samaritans approach the mountain through a town called Tirathaba, they find Pontus Pilate waiting for them. Battle ensues. Most of the Samaritans are killed, some flee, and some captured. Pilate orders the captives executed. Once again, Pilate desecrates a holy sacrifice with human blood. The locals want to know from Jesus, “How can God allow an unclean pagan to kill His faithful people while they offer Him worship?” Jesus' answer: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means!” In other words, if you think that you will be spared death b/c you are a lesser sinner than these Galileans, you're wrong. Forget the why's and focus on what's important: repent!
We know almost nothing at all about Pilate's slaughter of the Galileans, and we know only a little more than that about the tower collapsing at Siloam. Only Luke mentions it. We know eighteen people were killed. That's about it. Jesus uses the accident to ask the same question he asked before, “Do you think [that those killed] were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means!” Again, those killed were no more sinful than anyone else. They were killed b/c a tower fell on them. There is no “why” to this accident. Stop navel-gazing and focus on what's important, “But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” Jesus is not saying here that the failure to repent causes death. He's saying that if you do not want to perish in the spiritual condition that they did, then repent. How did they perish? Unrepentantly. What was their spiritual condition? Unclean. Our Lord's warning is not a threat or a prediction that being unclean will causes a fatal accident, or give you cancer, or attract a serial killer with a thing for Catholics. In fact, his point is exactly the opposite. The Galileans and those eighteen people killed in the tower accident were no more sinful than anyone else. Their spiritual flaw? They were unrepentant sinners.
As he is prone to doing, Jesus uses a parable to drive his teaching home. The owner of an orchard is upset that his fig tree hasn't produced any figs in three years. He orders his gardener to cut it down, “Why should it exhaust the soil?” The gardener—an unrepentant tree-hugger—talks the owner into giving the little tree one more year to produce. Good news for the tree; however, the gardener adds, “. . .it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.” The fig tree gets a reprieve not a pardon. This parable's connection to Jesus' call for repentance isn't made explicit, so we have to do the leg work here. Jesus asks the locals if the Galileans and the tower victims were any more sinful than any other sinner in town. The answer is no. Accidents happen; Roman governors slaughter people. Like the fig tree, we have one more season, one more week, or the rest of today to produce the good fruits of repentance; to turn ourselves around and run to God's mercy. Therefore, our focus needs to be on repentance not running after esoteric philosophical explanations for random events, or psychological analyses of a petty dictator's motives for violence. Why should our focus be on repentance and not asking why? Because random accidents can kill you. . .randomly, and sometimes petty dictators will decide that mass murder is a great cure for his social problems. In other words, because time is ebbing away and death comes for us all. Best be ready!
Now, Paul—never one to be left out of a good discussion on repentance—adds his two cents in his first letter to the Corinthians. Recalling that their ancestors in faith suffered and died in the wilderness with Moses, and noting that many were struck down b/c God was displeased with them, he writes, “These things happened to them as an example, and they have been written down as a warning to us. . . Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.” Those struck down in the wilderness with Moses are examples for us, and we read about them as warnings. Our immediate impulse here is to ask, “So, does God really strike people dead for displeasing Him?” And then we should immediately hear Jesus say, “Were they any more sinful than all the others? By no means! Repent, so that you do not die as they did.” Part of producing the good fruits of repentance is standing firm on our Rock, Christ Jesus. Paul notes that our ancestors in faith ate and drank in the wilderness “from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was the Christ.” They survived b/c God was with them always, and when they were faithful to the covenant, He blessed them abundantly.
We begin the third week of our trek through the Lenten desert, eating and drinking from Christ, our Rock. If you have been attentive to your fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, then you know what it means to find humility, to be fully aware of your dependence on God for your life and all that you have. Think carefully and pray urgently about what your friendship with God, about your place in His holy family, and what sort of person you are called to be in the world for the His greater glory. What is preventing you from receiving in full all the gifts that He has to give you? Is it some vice? A history of unconfessed sins? A stale prayer life? Whatever it is, turn away from it and run to God's mercy. Just walk away from whatever it is that stands btw you and the perfect love of God. And most of all, kill your worry. It will never bear good fruit. Our capacity for worrying is nearly limitless; however, our time on this earth is not. Therefore, repent and bear good fruit. . .before the season ends and the Gardener comes to prune his orchard._____________
*Antiquities 18, 4, 1 #86–87
*Antiquities 18, 4, 1 #86–87
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