3rd Sunday of Lent 2013
Despite the fact that nobody but academic researchers remember it, November of 1641 was one of the most important months in history. In that month, just before the English Civil War broke out, the first issue of what would be called a “newspaper” appeared in the shadow of Parliament. Until that time, news of contemporary events in one’s town, nation or the world was either unavailable or heavily censored by the town crier and officials. After that time, the increasing availability of paper and the printing press meant that what was happening in one’s world was less and less likely to be ignored. Today, of course, the decline of newsprint is offset, and even caused, by the exponential rise of news on computers and hand-held devices.
Today we get a glimpse of Jesus interacting with the local news of Jerusalem. Pontius Pilate was a ruthless Roman procurator. He represented the Emperor’s interests, and responded with cruelty to any perceived threat. Otherwise unknown to history, the events in today’s Gospel show what would have been considered an atrocity by a faithful Jew–Pilate murdered some Galilean pilgrims in the very act of going to the Temple to offer sacrifice to God. Jesus not only responds with a sermonette, he takes it one step further by bringing in another recent news item–a tower in the Siloam district of Jerusalem had collapsed, killing a number of residents. And to both evils he teaches the same thing–the people who suffered these disasters didn’t do so because they had committed some awful sin. They were no worse than the people around them, or than Jesus’s listeners. But they were dead, and unless the survivors–and we, by extension–repent, we will be just as dead as they.
Luke adds an unique parable–about the landowner with a barren fig tree. To his command to cut it down, his gardener responds, “let me aerate and fertilize it one more year, to see if it responds with fruit, and only then let me cut it down.”
So what can we learn about our own lives from the Word of God today? St. Paul tells us rather starkly: all the Hebrews led out of Egypt by Moses were in a sense baptized into Moses, and all ate the manna and drank of the miraculous waters. But they, and generation after generation of their descendants, disobeyed the Law of Moses, worshiped false gods, even sacrificed their babies to those demon gods, and they all perished in their sin. “These things are a warning for us, not to desire evil as they did.”
The problem of evil represents one of the fundamental questions of life that every human being must face. There are two kinds of evil, and Jesus distinguishes between them but gives the same answer to them. The first kind of evil is imposed by humans on other humans. Pilate murdered the Galileans for some reason or another. Some medical doctors here in San Antonio wake up every morning, go to work, and destroy the lives of innocent preborn babies. This is gross, intentional evil, absolutely out of God’s plan, criminally violating the natural law.
But there is other evil, apparently random. We don’t know about the tower in Siloam–maybe the designer or contractor cut corners and made it fatally weak. Maybe it was well built but placed over a geological fault, and an earthquake brought it down. Hurricane Sandy strikes the eastern seaboard, kills people and animals, destroys dwellings and businesses. Every year fire, earthquakes, storms, droughts ruin human lives and destroy property. This is random physical evil. We live in South Texas and don’t have to worry much about earthquakes, but other physical perils are ever-present threats.
Atheists since primitive times have used the existence of evil to bolster there argument that there is no God, or gods. The argument is simple–if there were a God, and that God is powerful and good, that God would keep evil from happening. Since evil is all around us, either God is either without power or without goodness. As one author put it, “if God is God, he is not good; if God is good, He is not God.”
St. Augustine tackled the problem of evil by perceiving that all evil is a lack of some good. It has no independent existence. Sickness is an absence of the good of health. Death is an absence of the good of life. When one commits an act of evil, he is always taking something away, never adding something. Augustine’s insight helps us, but it leaves us a little dry. It is more useful for us to realize that God made us in His own image and likeness. That means God gives us free will, the ability to decide to do good. But freedom of will also means freedom to do what is not good, to kill instead of heal, to tear down instead of build. If God prevented us from doing evil, He would be acting against His own gift, turning us into robots instead of free creatures. The existence of evil is, ironically, the price of being made in God’s image. Moreover, because we are children of the Fall, our minds and wills are weakened, unable without grace to do anything of supernatural merit. That’s why evil is an ever-present reality in our world.
Jesus Christ, the Son of God, goes one step further, however, in answering the problem of evil. And he presses us to go even further than he did. Jesus Christ emptied Himself of his divine privileges, and became human. We proclaim that every week in our Credo–the next thing we do in the Mass. He not only became human, He participated in our every woe, our every evil except personal sin. Early in life His parents fled with Him to Egypt to escape Herod. He knew what it was to be a refugee, an immigrant. When He proclaimed the teaching about the Bread of Life, the true manna, His Body and Blood, most of His disciples turned away from this wonderful gift. He experienced rejection by His people, and abandonment by His closest friends. Only a handful of them were with Him when He died on the cross. In Christ, God immersed Himself in evil, and triumphed over it. That is what we celebrate every Lent and Passiontide; that is why we do these forty days every year, and light the Paschal candle on Holy Saturday. Paul says it best: Christ became sin and died so that we might triumph over sin and death.
There is one more thing to consider–the fig tree. We who have been redeemed by Christ are like the fig tree in the Gospel. We can say “Lord, Lord” all we want; we can sing “Here I am, Lord” till we are sick of the words and music. But if we do not bear fruit, if we do not do good for others as well as avoiding evil, we are barren, useless to God. So this day, halfway through Lent, we need–all of us–to examine our behavior. Are we giving good example to our families, our friends. Do we not only avoid cursing and abusing God’s name, do we praise God every day and tell others of our gratitude for our life and salvation? Do we routinely give time and money to help the poor? Are we fruitful trees in God’s orchard, or lay-abouts? Lord, grant us the grace to follow you, to keep your commandments and respond to your challenge to evangelize our world.