Msgr. Joseph G. Prior

Msgr. Joseph G. Prior

(See the readings for the Third Sunday of Lent, Feb. 28)

Bob, a trapper, and his 2-year-old son lived in Alaska. Bob’s wife had passed away and he was raising his son alone. The homestead was in a wilderness area and very much isolated. At one time their food supplies dwindled and Bob was forced to leave the home to hunt for food. Regretfully he had to leave his 2-year-old at home with the family dog, Barney, for the weather would have been unbearable for the child.

While out hunting for food a new storm rolled in and Bob had to spend the night in a makeshift shelter. Returning home the next day, he entered the cabin. The dog was acting strangely and there was blood all over his mouth and paws. Blood was also on the floor. Expecting the worse, Bob searched the house for his little son but could not find him. “Barney must have done something to him since there was no food,” he thought. Bob was convinced. In a rage, he took Barney outside and shot him. He then went back inside the house in search for his boy in the faint hope that he was still alive.

Going to the second floor he called out for his son. Soon he heard a small cry. Going into his bedroom he found his boy, fully alive and unhurt, hiding under the bed. With the boy in his arms he returned downstairs.

As he was coming down the steps, in the corner of the room he saw a dead wolf. At once he realized what had happened. Barney had blood all over him because he fought the wolf while protecting the boy. Bob was full of grief for his rash judgment and for killing his dog. Needless to say, Bob’s judgment was way off track. It had devastating consequences that could not be altered or amended.

Jesus addresses the issue of judgment and repentance in the gospel passage for Sunday’s liturgy. People have gathered around him. They tell him “about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.” Some context here may help.

In the Jewish understanding at that time, when a serious destruction or calamity occurred, it was due to the sin of the people. Such was the case here and the people immediately judge the Galileans as sinful. The attitude represented here further implies that “we must be righteous” because the disaster did not affect us. Jesus responds, “By no means!”

He emphasizes the need for repentance saying: “But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” The time is now. It should not be delayed. The example of a sudden tragedy emphasizes the urgency of the “now” – once the tragedy occurs it’s too late.

Jesus again emphasizes the point by using another example that must have been in recent local “news.” He says: “Or those 18 people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them — do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?” He answers his question: “By no means!” Once again he calls them to repent, repeating the same phrase: “But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

The people are quick to judge. Their judgment of others obscures their own need of repentance. Jesus calls them back as he does elsewhere in the gospels. For example: “Stop judging, that you may not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). Or, “Why do you notice the splinter in your brother’s eye, but do not perceive the wooden beam in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove that splinter from your eye,’ while the wooden beam is in your eye? You hypocrite, remove the wooden beam from your eye first, then you will see clearly to remove the splinter from your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:3-5).

Jesus calls everyone to repentance. Everyone is in need of repentance. Everyone is in need of God’s mercy.

Jesus then uses the parable of the fig tree to further his teaching on the repentance piece. In this parable the gardener urges the owner to let him have “more time” to care for the tree so that it could bear fruit. It has already been three years without bearing fruit. Yet at the urging of the gardener the owner relents.

Several points can be made regarding the parable in the context of the call to repentance. No one knows when the “judgment day” will arrive or when the “end” comes. Hence, the urgency in Jesus’ earlier message. Consequently, repentance should permeate our whole lives. The parable of the fig tree points to the incredible patience of God as we strive for repentance. He is the judge and he will judge; but he wants us to turn back, he wants the tree to bear fruit, and he gives us the time to allow that to happen.

Perhaps we should see Jesus as the gardener. He is the one who pleads on our behalf. He recognizes that the tree needs assistance so that it can bear fruit. He is willing to give it the attention and care it needs so that it can do just that.

A little over three weeks ago we heard the words “repent and believe in the Gospel” as ashes we placed on our forehead. The season of Lent is a time of renewal and preparation. The call to repentance is repeated today. We are called not to judge others but to put ourselves at the mercy of the Lord. He calls for a contrite heart and a repentant spirit.

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Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.