"Life is not so much beginnings and endings as it is middles, middles that don't measure up -- and our happiness depends on how we come to terms with the pale reflections of our dreams. (Paul D. Zimmerman, "Middles and Muddles," review of film "Sunday Bloody Sunday," Newsweek, September 27, 1971, 106)

Gospel for the Third Sunday in Lent (28 February 2016)

Gospel notes by Michael Whelan SM 

JGospelAt that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem?

No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:1-9 – NRSV)

Introductory notes

the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices: “The two incidents related in 13:1–5 are unique to Luke. None of the accounts concerning Pilate’s penchant for punishing Jews exactly matches this rendition, though they support the picture of him as an administrator who reached quickly for violent solutions (Josephus, Antiquities 18:85–89; Jewish War 2:169–177). The point of Luke’s recital is less the history of Pilate’s reign than of the need to repent.” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, 1991, 211.)

this fig tree: In the tradition, a fig tree often stood as a symbol of Judah or Israel – see Hosea 9:10; Micah 7:1; Jeremiah 8:13n & 24:1–10. This might suggest there is something quite particular and concrete about this exchange. We should therefore be careful when we draw a universal message.

Reflection

In today’s Gospel Jesus addresses a mentality that can become a huge obstacle to human maturity. We might call it the reward and punishment mentality. Reward and punishment is a good way to train pets. It also works well with infants and children. The world of commerce also demands it. But human beings, at their best, live beyond reward and punishment. What would we think of a husband and wife whose relationship with each other was governed by a reward and punishment mentality?

It must be said, however, that too many of us never break free of this reward and punishment mentality in our relationship with God. As this mindset takes hold, God becomes primarily rewarder and punisher and generally someone to be afraid of. It is almost inevitable then for a simplistic conclusion to be drawn, at least implicitly or unconsciously: If I do the ‘right thing’, God will love me and will reward me; if I do the ‘wrong thing’ God will not love me and he will punish me.

Needless to say, this hardly does justice to our belief that God is love (see 1 John 4:7-21). In fact, there is nothing we can do that will make God love us more or less. God’s love cannot be bought or earned. It is freely available – to everyone!

At this point it may be helpful to make a distinction. A mentality that is motivated by rewards and punishments is quite different from a mentality that understands that actions have consequences. Whilst the latter tends to foster a sense of personal responsibility and accountability, the former tends to obstruct it, even undermine it.

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans?” Jesus would have been familiar with the promises outlined in Torah. For example in Deuteronomy 28:1: “If you will only obey the LORD your God, .... the LORD your God will (reward you).” The Book of Job had wrestled with this precise belief that the good are rewarded and the bad are punished. The same belief is explored in a lengthy passage in Ezekiel 18:1-32.

In our Gospel today – and in John 9:2-13 and Luke 5:17-26 – Jesus avoids affirming the reward and punishment mentality. There is a new teaching in Christ. He wants them to repent – all of them. They must be transformed in the depths of their beings and receive the love of God that Jesus will offer through his life, death and resurrection. He goes on to tell them a parable about growing and the consequences of not growing.

What is on offer in the Incarnation is severely demeaned by the reward and punishment mentality. Just as infants eventually grow into adult relationships with their parents, so we are called into an adult relationship with God.