The readings for Sunday, March 6, Fourth Sunday of Lent, Cycle C, are
Joshua 5:9a, 10-12; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21; and Luke 15:1-3, 11-32.
Jesus is engaged in his Galilean ministry of teaching and healing. Bystanders told him that some of their fellow Galileans had recently been in Jerusalem, where Pontius Pilate, at least by his command, mingled the blood of Galileans with their sacrifices. On what occasion this massacre occurred we do not know.
Pilate was appointed prefect of Judea in 26 A.D. during the reign of Emperor Tiberius (14-37 A.D.). He was relieved of this post in 36 A.D. Tiberius spent much of his time on the Isle of Capri and left active governance of the empire to his “prime minister” Sejanus, a notorious hater of the Jews. As long as Sejanus was in power, there would have been little or no restraint on Pilate, but Sejanus’ power ended in 31 A.D. Tiberius became suspicious of Sejanus, returned to Rome, and had Sejanus executed. There is historical evidence of Pilate’s cruelty toward his Jewish subjects. One clash between Pilate and his Jewish subjects occurred in Jerusalem when Pilate decided to use money from the temple treasury to pay for the building of an aqueduct twenty-five miles long to bring more water to Jerusalem. The temple was a kind of central bank. Money deposited there took on a sacred character. When the news broke that Pilate dared to raid that treasury, thousands of Jews gathered to protest. When they became abusive toward him, Pilate sent armed soldiers in disguise to mingle with the protestors. He then ordered the protestors to disband. They refused and kept insulting him. He gave an agreed upon signal to his soldiers. They attacked and killed many of protestors.
Jesus questions those who told him about this incident, “Do you think these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way?” He answers his own question, “No, I tell you, but unless you repent, you will likewise perish.” Does this mean they will also be killed at Pilate’s command? No! It means that death or violent death can strike those unprepared at any moment. Then Jesus tells a story of his own, a story that does not describe human violence to the unsuspecting, but violence that happens to them merely because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time.
A tower seems to have been part of an old wall of ancient Jerusalem. Its purpose would have been to guard the tunnel that brought water into the pool of Siloam (John 9:11) from a spring outside the city. The tunnel was dug during the time of King Hezekiah, about 700 B.C. It still exists. When the tower collapsed, probably in the early thirties A.D., eighteen bystanders were crushed. The Lucan Jesus notes that these unfortunates were no greater sinners than anyone else living in Jerusalem. The warning: “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.” Both examples are used by Luke to incorporate into his teaching the need of preparedness at all times by a repentant way of life. When the Church incorporates these stories into the liturgy of Lent, they are an invitation to repentance not so much because of a return of Jesus at the end of time, but a meeting with Jesus which can come about unexpectedly through sudden death. Lent is the time to think about repentant preparation for that meeting.
Luke adds one of Jesus’ parables that serves about the same purpose as the two preceding stories. A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard. He came looking for figs. No figs! For three years he had come looking for fruit from his fig tree. What to do? He says to his gardener, “Cut it down. Why should it take up space?” The gardener had a better idea. He said, “Leave it alone for one more year. Boss. In the meantime I will dig around it and put manure around it. If we get fruit next year, well and good. If not, you can cut it down.” The context of this parable in Luke’s gospel is the same as was noted above — the end time and the return of Jesus. However the Church places this parable also in the context of a Lenten liturgy, thereby giving it a new spin.
What slant or spin is given to today’s parable by its inclusion in a Lenten liturgy? To be planted in the vineyard (a symbol of the Church) is no guarantee of salvation. As the fig tree had to produce fruit to stay alive, so must a Christian produce fruit. The one year extension, the digging around the tree, the application of manure, symbolize the extra effort a Christian exerts during Lent in repentance and the good works that flow from it.