Year C: Third Sunday of Lent

A Call to Repentance

Luke 13: 1-9

At that time some people who were present there told him (Jesus) about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. He 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.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. 1. Do you associate tragic events affecting people’s lives, or random evil that occurs as punishment for sins and connected to God’s divine will? How has your experience of “God’s will” evolved as your faith has deepened?
  2. Repentance is an ongoing process not a one-time event. It means turning away from ways of thinking and acting that reinforce separation from God and people. As you reflect on the past year, where have you experienced “new ways of thinking” or turning toward God that could be lifted in prayer this Lenten season? Explain.
  3. In this reading, “perishing as they did”, means our life could end at any moment and while we are outside of a right relationship with God. How do you feel about the idea that we can choose to “perish” by choosing to refuse God?
  4. This reading closes with a parable that teaches; “we are meant to bear fruit”. What new actions are you taking to cultivate areas of fruitfulness in your growth, and the growth of others at this point in your life?

Biblical Context

Luke 13: 1-9
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD 

Our Gospel reading today does not follow last week’s reading from Luke. Rather it was selected for this third Sunday of Lent because it teaches us the urgency of repentance. The reading gives us two very good reasons to repent: The first is that sin causes suffering. The second is that we do not know how long we will have to repent, so we should repent now.

Our reading begins with some people telling Jesus about an atrocity Pilate committed: Pilate had persecuted and killed some Galileans. Then, after killing them, he mixed their blood with the sacrifice they were offering.  As Jesus responds he is arguing against a presumption that was held by many people—that all suffering is punishment for sin. Jesus asks the people, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way, they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means!” Here Jesus is teaching that suffering is not punishment for sin.

Jesus gives a second example of people suffering, but not as punishment for sin. He reminds the people about a tower that had fallen in Siloam and killed eighteen people. Jesus asks, “… do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means!” We are we not told why the tower fell. Was it faulty construction? We do not know. But we do know that those who were killed were not being punished for their sins.

After both of these examples, however, Jesus calls the people to repentance and seems to threaten them with similar suffering. After hearing of Pilate’s atrocity Jesus says, “But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” After speaking of the tower at Siloam Jesus says exactly the same words again, “But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” Obviously, Jesus is trying to emphasize something. What is he trying to teach?

While Jesus does not want people to think that suffering is punishment for sin, at the same time he does want them to know that sin does cause suffering. Sin causes suffering not because God is mean and punishing, but because suffering is the inevitable outcome of sin. When we sin, we bring suffering upon ourselves and upon others. In order to avoid the suffering that results from sin Jesus urges his listeners to repent. Why should they cause themselves the same kind of suffering that other people have endured from Pilate’s atrocities and from the falling tower?

After calling the people to repentance Jesus tells them a parable. A person who owns an orchard has lost patience with a fig tree that is not bearing fruit. He wants to cut it down. However, the gardener wants to give the fig tree more time to bear fruit. He says, “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.” Any unrepentant person in Jesus’ audience is like that fig tree. That person is not bearing fruit. The time to bear fruit is now. No one knows how long he or she has to repent and bear fruit in this life. Therefore, the lesson is, repent now while there is still time.

One last comment on the passage and the parable: Some people misinterpret today’s reading and see in it a mean and punishing God. Jesus came to reveal that God is love. In today’s passage Jesus is arguing against the idea that a loving God would think the kind of suffering endured by the Galileans was punishment for sin. In doing this Jesus is following in the footsteps of his inspired Jewish predecessors. The theme of the Book of Job is that suffering is not necessarily punishment fir sin.

Also in today’s parable, the man who owns the garden and wants to cut down the fig tree does not stand for God. To understand the message being taught through a parable we compare the characters in the story to the audience, and draw the lesson from this comparison, as we have done. The story is not an allegory, so nobody in the story stands for God.

Bearing Fruit

Spiritual Reflection
John Shea

What happens when one way of thinking is too much with us? What happens when a single question occupies our consciousness? What happens when we say of some thought, “I can’t get it out of my mind” or “It gives me no rest”?

Many people think that when the mind can be single-minded, it is on the path of discovery. Highly focused attention is the precursor to breakthroughs in thinking and solutions to problems. However, there can be a downside to this ability to concentrate. The mind that is preoccupied with one thought excludes many others. There is only so much “room” in the mind. When all the space is taken by one way of thinking, there is no place for another thought. Therefore, if a new thought is to be allowed to influence a person, it must replace the current thought that monopolizes the mind or, at least, make that thought “move over” so that the space of the mind can be shared.

This seems to be the background for one of the teachings of this text. The crowds are filled with the question of tragic events and divine will. They ponder outer events, evaluating them as blessings or curses, rewards for righteousness or punishments for sins. They worry about why bad things happen to good people or why good things happen to bad people. This is an important train of thought, and it has an honored place in Christian theology. The problem is not with these questions surrounding divine will and tragic events, but how these questions crowd out other questions: in particular, how these questions of divine will preclude the most significant question about divine will.

The divine will is not in outer events, but in the soul where the person is connected to God. The path of contacting and enacting the divine will is to go within and then to go without. When we go without, we carry the divine will with us. God’s will is done in and through us.

That is the thrust of Jesus’ prayer. We are the sons and daughters of ‘our Father in heaven.” When we open to this Father in heaven, we are to hallow his name, bring his kingdom, and do his will “on earth as it is in heaven.” The assumption of the prayer is that God’s will is not done on earth. Therefore, to look at the events of the earth to find God’s will is to look in the wrong direction. It is in the heavenly space of prayer that we touch this will and it is in the struggles of the earth that we enact it.

This is what it means to bear fruit, to bear God’s being and love into the world. If, at the moment, we are not doing this, the gardener will go to work. Our tree is planted in good soil. In other words, we are grounded in God, in the reality of “the hidden ground of love” (the title of a Thomas Merton book.) But we are not attending to that grounding or opening to its nurture. The art of the gardener (the Second Adam who has not lost the intimacy of the Garden of Paradise) will revitalize our contact with the ground of God. He begs for time and with hoeing and fertilizing creates the conditions of fruitfulness.

But, in the last analysis, what drives Christ to pull attention away from speculative matters and redirect it to this fundamental intercourse between divine and human wills? There is little indication in the episode. However, I fantasize he is moved by a great sadness brought on by the sight of wasted soil and fruitless trees. I recently read of a very successful business leader who had died. His wife was asked if he was a happy man. She replied that he had trouble with happiness because he was almost “physically revolted by the idea of unrealized potential left on the table.” There is something of that intensity in Jesus’ plea for repentance.

Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle C, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2006 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc.

Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.