Third Sunday of Lent Year C 2013:
Lent is a season of prayer and penance. It is a time to enter the desert with Jesus, a time to look at our lives and repent of our sinfulness. And I believe that the theme of repentance is the proper context for us to understand our gospel reading today. This is an interesting, if not strange passage in the gospel. What is Jesus getting at?
First, Jesus addresses the concerns that some of the people have about certain tragedies or atrocities that happened in his day. There was the massacre of Herod and the loss of life when a tower fell. We could add tragedies from our own times: the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Katrina disaster, the Newtown massacre, just to name a few. Jesus responds to what must have been an idea prevalent at the time, namely that these bad things happened to these people because they were bad people, and God was punishing them. I heard similar things about our own tragedies, that 9/11 was God's response to abortion, or that Katrina was God's way of cleansing the sin of Bourbon Street. But, Jesus instantly rejects this idea and so should we. Why does Jesus do this? I think there are two reasons.
First, if we say that God does bad things to bad people, what does that say about God? Do we really want to think of disasters or tragedies as God inflicting punishment on sinners? This doesn't sound loving or merciful. This kind of behavior sounds petty and vindictive. Do we really want to say that God is petty and vindictive? We must remember that God so loved the world that he sent his only begotten Son, so that all those who believe in him might not perish but might have eternal life. Also, God sent Jesus not to condemn the world, but to save the world. We will often hear in times of sadness or tragedy, that God has a plan. But, we must always be careful to remember that God never causes evil. It is certainly true that when evil occurs, whether it is natural evil like hurricanes or moral evil like the Newtown tragedy, that God can bring good out of the suffering, he aids us in our times of need. But, God does not cause evil.
The second reason Jesus dismisses this idea is that he wants to remind us that repentance is for everyone. If we think that God inflicts tragedy on bad people, and we are not the recipients of a tragedy, then we must be perfectly fine. This kind of thinking goes like this: "Well God punished New Orleans with Katrina, those people must have been bad, good thing I am so awesome..." A certain lack of humility will set in and we will forget about our basic need for repentance. We are all sinners and we all need to change. And, the stakes are high: Jesus says that if we don’t repent we will perish.
This doesn’t mean that God is out to get us. So you don’t have to worry that if you sin the St. Matt’s bell tower is going to fall on you when you leave the church today. But, it is definitely true that sin kills the sinner. It is not that God kills us if we sin; rather, it is that we are killing ourselves by our sinfulness. And this is not a physical kind of death, but rather a spiritual death. Sin is not good for us, it leads us away from God, it detaches us from one another, it leads to loneliness and isolation, hardship and suffering. So, we should repent of our sinfulness not simply because we are afraid that God will “get us.” Rather, each of us should move away from our sinfulness because we want more. We were made for life, not death; for happiness, not sadness; for peace, not for violence.
Jesus doesn’t call us to repentance so as to accuse us of our sinfulness; rather, hear his words as a loving invitation. We stand at the crossroads, one way leads to sin, sadness, and death. The other leads to life, happiness, and peace. Which way will we choose?