Fr. Damien Chong, (PCM)
P. Temp.: 08-09-58
P. Soll.: 08-09-61
Dom Albert Först, (Ger)
Episcopus emeritus Dourados, Brasil
P. Soll.: 17-09-51
Jesus comments on the events of the day
How to interpret the signs of the times
1. Opening prayer
Lord Jesus, send your Spirit to help us to read the Scriptures with the same mind that you read them to the disciples on the way to Emmaus. In the light of the Word, written in the Bible, you helped them to discover the presence of God in the disturbing events of your sentence and death. Thus, the cross that seemed to be the end of all hope became for them the source of life and of resurrection.
Create in us silence so that we may listen to your voice in Creation and in the Scriptures, in events and in people, above all in the poor and suffering. May your word guide us so that we too, like the two disciples from Emmaus, may experience the force of your resurrection and witness to others that you are alive in our midst as source of fraternity, justice and peace. We ask this of you, Jesus, son of Mary, who revealed to us the Father and sent us your Spirit. Amen.
a) A key to the reading:
The text of the third Sunday of Lent puts before us two different but related facts: Jesus comments on the events of the day and he narrates a parable. Luke 13:1-5: At the people’s request, Jesus comments on the events of the day: the massacre of pilgrims by Pilate and the massacre at the tower of Siloam where eighteen persons were killed. Luke 13:-9: Jesus tells a parable about the fig tree that bore no fruit.
As you read, it is good to note two things: (i) see how Jesus contradicts the popular interpretation of what is happening (ii) see whether there is a connection between the parable and the comment on the events of the day.
b) A division of the text to help with the reading:
Luke 13:1: The people tell Jesus about the massacre of the Galileans
Luke 13:2-3: Jesus comments on the massacre and draws a lesson from there for the people
Luke 13:4-5: To support his thinking, Jesus comments on another event
Luke 13:6-9: The parable of the fig tree that did not bear fruit
1 It was just about this time that some people arrived and told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with that of their sacrifices. At this he said to them, 2 'Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than any others, that this should have happened to them? 3 They were not, I tell you. No; but unless you repent you will all perish as they did. 4 Or those eighteen on whom the tower at Siloam fell, killing them all? Do you suppose that they were more guilty than all the other people living in Jerusalem? 5 They were not, I tell you. No; but unless you repent you will all perish as they did.' 6 He told this parable, 'A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard, and he came looking for fruit on it but found none. 7 He said to his vinedresser, "For three years now I have been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and finding none. Cut it down: why should it be taking up the ground?" 8 "Sir," the man replied, "leave it one more year and give me time to dig round it and manure it: 9 it may bear fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down." '
3. A moment of prayerful silence
so that the Word of God may penetrate and enlighten our life.
4. Some questions
to help us in our personal reflection.
a) What struck or pleased you most in this text? Why?
b) What was the popular interpretation of these two events?
c) How does Jesus disagree with the popular interpretation of the events?
d) What is the meaning of the parable? Is there a connection between the parable and the comments on the events?
e) What is this text’s message for us who have to interpret the signs of the times today?
5. For those who wish to go deeper into the theme
a) The literary and historical context of then and now:
Luke writes his Gospel about 85 A.D. for the Christian communities in Greece. Generally, he follows the narrative in Mark’s Gospel. Here and there he introduces some minor differences or changes some words so as to adapt the narrative to his purpose. Apart from Mark’s Gospel, Luke also consults other books and has access to other sources: eye witnesses and ministers of the Word (Lk 1:2). All the material that is not found in Mark, Luke organizes into a literary form: Jesus on a long journey from Galilee to Jerusalem. There is a description of the journey in Luke 9:51 to 19:28 and this includes ten chapters or one third of the Gospel!
In these chapters, Luke constantly reminds his readers that Jesus is on a journey. He rarely tells us where Jesus is, but he lets us know clearly that Jesus is travelling and that the end of the journey is Jerusalem where he will die in accordance with what the prophets had foretold (Lk 9:51.53.57; 10:1.38; 11:1; 13:22.33; 14:25; 17:11; 18:31. 35; 19:1.11.28). And even after Jesus reaches Jerusalem, Luke goes on talking of a journey to the centre (Lk 19:29.41.45; 20:1). Just before the journey begins, on the occasion of the transfiguration with Moses and Elijah on the mountain, the going to Jerusalem is considered as an exodus for Jesus (Lk 9:31) and as an ascension or climbing up to heaven (Lk 9:51). In the Old Testament, Moses had led the first exodus liberating people from Pharaoh’s oppression (Ex 3:10-12) and the prophet Elijah went up to heaven (2 Kings 2:11). Jesus is the new Moses who comes to liberate people from the oppression of the Law. He is the new Elijah who comes to prepare the coming of the Kingdom.
The description of Jesus’ long journey to Jerusalem is not just a literary device to introduce the material proper to Luke. It also reflects the long and arduous journey that the communities in Greece were going through in their daily lives in Luke’s time: passing from a rural world in Palestine to a cosmopolitan environment in the Greek culture at the edges of the great cities of Asia and Europe. This passage or inculturation was marked by a strong tension between the Christians from Judaism and the new converts who came from other ethnic and cultural groups. Indeed, the description of the long journey to Jerusalem reflects the painful process of conversion that people connected to Judaism had to make: to leave the world of the observance of the law that accused and condemned them, to go towards a world of the gratuitous love of God to all peoples, to the certainty that in Christ all peoples meld into one before God; to leave the closed world of a race to go towards the universal territory of humanity. This is also the journey of our lives. Are we capable of transforming the crosses of life into an exodus of liberation?
b) A commentary on the text:
Luke 13:1:The people inform Jesus of the massacre of the Galileans
Like today, the people pass comments on the events that happen and want to hear comments from those who can form public opinion. That is why some people went to Jesus to tell him of the massacre of some Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with that of their sacrifices. It was probably the assassination that took place on Mount Gerazim, which was still a place of pilgrimage and where people were wont to offer sacrifices. This event underlines the ferocity and stupidity of some Roman rulers in Palestine who provoked the religious sensibility of the Jews through irrational actions such as this.
Luke 13:2-3: Jesus comments on the massacre and draws a lesson for the people
Asked to give an opinion, Jesus asks: “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than any others, that this should happen to them?” Jesus’ question reflects the popular interpretation common then: suffering and violent death are a punishment from God for some sin committed by that person. Jesus’ reaction is categorical: “They were not I tell you. No!” He denies the popular interpretation and transforms the event into an examination of conscience: “unless you repent you will all perish as they did”. In other words, unless there is a real and proper change, the same massacre will overtake all. Later history confirmed Jesus’ foresight. The change did not take place. They were not converted and forty years later, in 70, Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans. Many people were massacred. Jesus saw the gravity of the political situation of his country. On the one hand, there was the ever heavier and unbearable Roman domination. On the other, there was the official religion, which was growing more and more alienated without understanding the importance of the faith in Yahweh in the lives of the people.
Luke 13:4-5: In support of his thinking, Jesus comments on more than one event
Jesus takes the initiative of commenting on another event. A blizzard causes the tower of Siloam to crumble and eighteen people are crushed by the stones. People thought that it was “a punishment from God!” Jesus’ comment is: “No, I tell you, but unless you repent you will all perish as they did”. His concern is to interpret events in such a way that God’s call to change and conversion becomes transparent. Jesus is a mystic, a contemplative. He reads events in a different way. He can read and interpret the signs of the times. For him, the world is transparent, revealing the presence and call of God.
Luke 13:6-9: The parable of the fig tree that bears no fruit
Jesus then tells the parable of the fig tree that bears no fruit. A man had planted a fig tree in his vineyard. For three years the tree bore no fruit. So he says to his vinedresser: “Cut it down”. But the vinedresser replies: “Leave it one more year….it may bear fruit next year; if not, then you can cut it down”. We do not know whether Jesus told this parable immediately after his comments on the massacre and the crumbling of the tower of Siloam. It was probably Luke who placed this parable here, because Luke sees a connection between the comments on the events and the parable of the fig tree. Luke does not say what this connection is. He leaves us to discover this. What meaning does Luke see? I shall dare to give an opinion. You may discover another meaning. The owner of the vineyard and of the fig tree is God. The fig tree represents the people. Jesus is the vinedresser. The owner of the vineyard has grown tired of looking for fruit from the fig tree and finding none. He decides to uproot the tree. Thus there will be more room for another plant that may bear fruit. The chosen people were not producing the fruit that God expected. He wants to pass on the Good News to the pagans. Jesus is the vinedresser who asks that the fig tree be spared a little longer. He will redouble his efforts to obtain a change and a conversion. Later in the Gospel, Jesus recognizes that his redoubled efforts have borne no result. They will not be converted. Jesus mourns the lack of conversion and weeps over the city of Jerusalem. (Lk 19:41-44).
c) Further information:
A short history of the popular resistance against the Romans in Jesus’ time
In this Sunday’s Gospel, Luke makes clear allusions to the repression of the Roman legions against the popular resistance of the Galileans. Hence we give a schematic overview of the popular resistance of Judeans against the Roman domination. Over the years this resistance grew deeper and took root in the faith of the people. Here is an outline that runs parallel with Jesus’ life:
i) From 63 to 37 before Christ: A popular revolt without any clear direction. In 63 before Christ, the Roman Empire invaded Palestine and imposed a peasant tribute. From 57 to 37, in just 20 years, six rebellions broke out in Galilee! The people, aimless, followed anyone who promised to liberate them from the Roman tribute.
ii) From 37 to 4 before Christ: Repression and dislocation. This is the time of the government of Herod, called The Great. He is the one who killed the innocents in Bethlehem (Mt 2:16). Brutal repression prevented any kind of popular manifestation. Herod thus promoted the so-called Pax Romana. This peace gave the Empire a certain economic stability, but for the oppressed people it was the peace of a cemetery.
iii) From 4 to 6 after Christ: Messianic revolutions. This is the period of Archelaus’ government in Judea. On the day he took power, he massacred 3000 persons in the Temple square. The revolution exploded all over the country, but it was aimless. The popular leaders at this time were seeking for motives connected with ancient tradition and presented themselves as messianic kings. The Roman repression destroyed Seforis, the capital of Galilee. Violence was the mark of Jesus’ childhood. In the ten years of Archelaus’ government, he saw Palestine go through one of the most violent periods of its history.
iv) From 6 to 27: Zeal for the law: A time for revision. In the year 6, Romolus deposed Archelaus and transformed Judea into a Roman Province, decreeing a census so as to make sure that the tribute was paid. The census produced a strong popular reaction inspired by Zeal for the Law. This Zeal (hence the term zealots) urged people to boycott and not pay the tribute. This was a new form of resistance, a kind of civil disobedience that spread like a repressed fire under embers. However, Zeal had a limited vision. The "zealots" ran the danger of reducing the observance of the Law to opposition to the Romans. It was precisely during this period that Jesus grew in awareness of his mission.
v) From 27 to 69: The prophets reappear. After these 20 years, from 6 to 26, the revision of the aim of the journey appears with the preaching of the prophets who represented a step forward in the popular movement. The prophets called the people together and invited them to conversion and change. They wanted to reform history from its origins. They gathered the people in the desert (Mk 1:4), to begin a new exodus, proclaimed by Isaiah (Is 43:16-21). The first was John the Baptist (Mt 11:9; 14:5; Lk 1:76), who drew many people (Mt 3:5-7). Soon after, Jesus came on the scene and was considered by the people to be a prophet (Mt 16:14; 21:11.46; Lk 7:16). Jesus, like Moses, proclaimed the New Law on the Mountain (Mt 5:1) and nourished the people in the desert (Mk 6:30-44). Like the fall of the walls of Jericho towards the end of the forty years in the desert (Is 6: 20), so also Jesus proclaimed the fall of the walls of Jerusalem (Lk 19: 44; Mt 24:2). Like the prophets of old, Jesus proclaimed the liberation of the oppressed and the beginning of a new jubilee year (Lk 4:18-19), and asked for a change in the way of life (Mk 1:15; Lk 13:3.5).
There are other prophets after Jesus. That is why revolution, messianism and zeal continue to exist simultaneously. The authorities of the time, Romans and Herodians, as also priests, scribes and Pharisees, all concerned with the security of the Temple and the Nation (Jn 11:48) and with the observance of the Law (Mt 23:1-23), could see the difference between prophets and other popular leaders. For them they were all the same. They mistook Jesus for a messianic king (Lk 23:2.5). Gamaliel, the great doctor of the law, for instance, compared Jesus with Judas, leader of the revolutionaries (Acts 5:35-37). Flavius Josephus himself, the historian, mistook the prophets for "thieves and impostors". Today we would say that they were all "good for nothing"!
6. Praying Psalm 82 (81)
God warns human authorities
God takes his stand in the divine assembly,
surrounded by the gods he gives judgement.
'How much longer will you give unjust judgements
and uphold the prestige of the wicked?
Let the weak and the orphan have justice,
be fair to the wretched and the destitute.
'Rescue the weak and the needy,
save them from the clutches of the wicked.
'Ignorant and uncomprehending,
they wander in darkness,
while the foundations of the world are tottering.
I had thought, "Are you gods,
are all of you sons of the Most High?"
No! you will die as human beings do,
as one man, princes, you will fall.'
judge the world,
for all nations belong to you.
7. Final Prayer
Lord Jesus, we thank for the word that has enabled us to understand better the will of the Father. May your Spirit enlighten our actions and grant us the strength to practice that which your Word has revealed to us. May we, like Mary, your mother, not only listen to but also practice the Word. You who live and reign with the Father in the unity of the Holy Spirit forever and ever. Amen.