Last Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 13:1-9), from the cycle for “Year C,” really got me thinking. I’ll admit I would much rather have homilized on the “Year A” Gospel, Jesus and the woman at the well — a favorite — which you may have heard anyway if your parish was celebrating First Scrutiny. This is one of the stages in the RCIA process, toward full Christian initiation at the Easter Vigil. It involves a period of purification and enlightenment for the catechumen, the person being initiated. 

The Gospel most of us heard, however, made me less comfortable. Which is probably the point. “Some people,” Luke tells us, were questioning Jesus about a horrible massacre, probably to get him to make them feel better. Pilate for some reason, probably vengeance or to assert control, had decided to mock some Galileans engaged in routine religious rituals by slaughtering them as well, “mingling their blood,” Luke says, with that of the sacrificed animals. The account is unique to Luke, but Flavius Josephus, a reliable Romano-Jewish historian of the time, relates two other such incidents, which suggests Luke’s account is consistent with the Roman procurator’s M.O. 

The response of Jesus is shocking. He emits no “statement” condemning this obvious terroristic action of politically motivated religious persecution. Rather he cites some other local gossip about a tower in Siloam collapsing, which killed some 14 people. His comment on each tragedy makes no distinction between the one caused by human malice and the other, probably accidental. Nor does he offer condolences or indulge in speculation about why such things happen or how to prevent them or who is to blame, as they (and us?) might have expected. 

It could be he is reading the mentality of his interrogators as “God punished them” or maybe “they deserved it,” unlike themselves. By that logic, God was somehow singling out the victims as greater sinners than they and everyone else in Jerusalem. So Jesus turns the tables and says, “I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” 

Strong words, seemingly insensitive to the decedents, though hardly less so than the attitude among his questioners, who are still living. Then, in a short parable, Jesus drives his saving message home: a fate just as bad awaits the sinner who refuses God’s abundant grace and persists in sin. The whole point of the disciplines of Lent — prayer, fasting and almsgiving — is to induce us to change our sinful patterns. If this does not happen, Lent fails, and Easter is superfluous. 

On Ash Wednesday, as most of us had ashes imposed, we heard an exhortation like, “Turn away from sin and believe the Good News!” Did we wash this warning away when we wiped the ashes off? Has there been any change of attitude or a pattern of sin in our life yet? What are we waiting for? Maybe we need a tattoo instead!  

Or we can take the words of Jesus to heart. 

In his parable, Jesus describes an orchard owner who had a fig tree planted. He complains to the gardener that for three years it has produced no figs and he wants to cut it down. The gardener defends the fig tree, as it were, asking the owner to be patient while he puts some more fertilizer in the soil and so give it another chance before cutting it down.  

I can’t help but think that Jesus often prayed for us to his heavenly Father in this way: withhold your justice, be patient with these people, give them a chance to reform their ways. We see this pattern throughout the prophets and psalms of the Old Testament.

What threw me even more, however, was what Jesus relates next. Now it had never occurred to me before that he might actually be comparing God’s abundant, often wasted grace, to manure. A pretty humble gesture on his part, especially when we consider that Jesus himself is the instrument through whom we get our second chance! And to pursue the metaphor, isn’t that exactly how we treat God’s forgiving, redeeming love — Jesus’ own gift of himself on the Cross! — when we refuse to let his grace into the soil of our souls so that he can actually change our lives?  

It is one thing to show prayerful compassion (even if it makes one feel a little better), lamenting terrible tragedies, which befall innocent people, perhaps a little guilted by our own good fortune and grateful for a safer environment. Nothing wrong with that, but are we so different from those who questioned Jesus?  

It is another thing, however, to be reminded that we are no more secure than they if we end up playing a “game of thrones,” so to speak, with our eternal salvation, clinging to false security, while avoiding God’s warning to amend our ways. Ouch! 

“Remember you are dust and unto dust you shall return.” That was the ancient admonition in the Latin rite on the imposition of ashes. Or, to recall a Gospel reminder from another parable (the 10 virgins) about constant vigilance, “stay awake, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” (Mt 25:13)  

No, there is nothing wrong with keeping current on calamities befalling others near and far, or seeking to console those whose lives are impacted.

Compassion for others in their suffering is the heart of the works of mercy. But our eternal salvation depends on more than being up on the news and just talking or praying about it. It requires more than doing good deeds, reforming institutions — or even making Lenten sacrifices. It’s personal. 

To turn away from sinful habits and to do penance are essential for our personal salvation. Or the “manure” of God’s grace will never penetrate our soul’s soil. There is an urgency with which Jesus insists in this unsettling Gospel. We can run out of time. Our spiritual life can dry up if we resist God’s grace.  

Bishop Robert Barron sums it up well: “This is not divine vengeance; it is spiritual physics.” Now is the time — not tomorrow, or the next retreat or seminar, or a trip, or shopping spree or even retirement — to “let go and let God.” The logic of God’s love is that to benefit from it, we must also be changed by it — here and now – before our tower collapses.