“Repent and believe in the Gospel,” are the words that for many of us signal the beginning of the Lenten season. These words are one of the formulas used in the distribution of ashes. The expression comes from Jesus Himself. In the Gospel according to St. Mark, Jesus uses this expression to inaugurate the public ministry. Today we are reminded, once again, of the need for repentance and a turning back to God.
In the Gospel passage for today’s liturgy, Jesus speaks to a group of people. A general historical background for two references is helpful to understand the urgency in Jesus’ response.
First, the people speaking with Jesus tell Him “about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.” Pontius Pilate was known for his brutality in dealing with insurrection and “trouble-makers” in his territory. The people of this time knew his ruthlessness and the bloodshed for which he was responsible.
So while the specific background for the Gospel reference is unknown, Pilate’s manner of handing the “problem” would have been well known.
Second, Jesus makes a reference to 18 people dying when the Siloam tower fell. The Siloam tower was one of the guard towers built into the walls of Jerusalem. This tower would have been located near the Pool of Siloam (which was the location of Jesus’ healing of the man born blind – John 9:1ff). The reference alludes to the tower falling unexpectedly, killing the 18 bystanders.
In both cases a particular understanding of “sin” is referenced. One understanding of “sin,” at that time, was that people could be identified as sinners if something bad happened to them. The suffering or injury that comes upon them, in these cases death, was a result of their own sin or of the sins of their ancestors.
Jesus corrects this understanding by saying in the first case: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means!” In the second case he says, “Do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means!”
Such is the context for Jesus’ call to repentance. His message is everyone needs to repent. Turning back to the Lord and away from sin is necessary for all.
The parable in today’s Gospel passage points to the patience of God. In this case the owner of the orchard wants to cut down the unproductive fig tree. The gardener appeals for more time to cultivate the ground around it and to fertilize it so that it can bear fruit. Then the owner relents and allows more time.
During this season of Lent we are called to repentance. Inculcating a penitential attitude in our lives is an important aspect of discipleship.
Moses learns this as he approaches the burning bush and hears God say: “Come no nearer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.”
Moses hides his face but God continues to speak. His mercy to Moses and Israel is clear as he says, “I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt … I know well what they are suffering.” He then commissions Moses to deliver His people.
Turning to the Lord in repentance is one of the ways in which we experience His mercy and His forgiveness. The Lord wants us to experience the fullness of life. Our journey in life is a journey of transformation. Conversion of heart is the expression used for this transformation. Repentance is one of the steps we take in response to God’s gracious invitation. During the days and weeks ahead we pray for the grace to respond to the invitation, “Repent, and believe in the Gospel.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.