‘Unless you repent you will all perish as they did’
Third Sunday of Lent (Year C)
In the first part of this gospel passage Jesus makes it clear that suffering is not necessarily brought about by sin, before stressing the need for repentance when we, like the fig tree in the parable, are lacking in ‘fruitfulness’. Fr Adrian Graffy reflects.
1 Some people arrived and told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with that of their sacrifices. 2 At this he said to them, ‘Do you suppose these Galileans who suffered like that were greater sinners than any other Galileans? 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 and killed them? 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 the man who looked after the vineyard, “Look here, 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.”’
Other readings: Exodus 3:1-8,13-15 Psalm 102 (103) 1 Corinthians 10:1-6,10-12
This gospel reading contains material found in no other gospel which raises crucial questions about the justice of God and the need for repentance. We frequently hear about human suffering, suffering inflicted by other people or resulting from ‘natural disasters’. Suffering and tragedy have always led to the question ‘Why me?’ The random nature of human suffering leads many to question the existence of a loving God. What Jesus makes clear in the first part of this gospel passage is that suffering is not necessarily brought about by sin. Those who suffered at the hands of Pilate and in the collapse of the tower of Siloam were no guiltier than their fellows. Jesus does not explain at this point the meaning of innocent suffering. He acknowledges that it is part of the human condition. The answer he will give will be seen on Calvary.
The second part of the gospel reading contains the parable of the fig tree. Whereas in the gospels of Matthew and Mark, Jesus is seen cursing the fig tree which carries no fruit (Mark chapter 11 and Matthew chapter 21), here in Luke Jesus uses a parable to make the same point. The fig tree symbolises the people and their lack of fruitfulness. The gardener ‘intercedes’ for the fig tree, recalling the role of Jesus in relation to sinners. The gardener makes his appeal, but we are not told the reply. We may presume that the fig tree was granted a reprieve, but for how many years?
How long do I wait before responding to the call of God, the call of conscience?
What consolation can a Christian offer in the face of innocent suffering?
We pray for openness to learn from the words of Christ.
Rev Dr Adrian Graffy is a member of the Vatican Commission that takes a lead in Bible scholarship, interpretation and promotion in the Catholic Church.
Rev Dr Graffy said of his five-year appointment by Pope Francis in 2014: “It is an honour to be nominated by Pope Francis as a member of the Pontifical Biblical Commission. I feel humbled and very much look forward to being of service to His Holiness and the Church.”
He added: “A great deal has been achieved in England and Wales in recent years by many co-workers to advance Biblical scholarship and the provision of easy-to-use resources. I would like to take this opportunity to thank them and the Bishops’ Conference Department for Evangelisation and Catechesis for their efforts to promote understanding and love of the Bible, particularly through the publication of the teaching documents, The Gift of Scripture and the study guide to Verbum Domini, The Word of the Lord.”
Rev Dr Graffy received his doctorate in Sacred Scripture from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome in 1983. He taught for over 20 years in St John’s Seminary in Wonersh, and is Chair of the National Scripture Working Group, which is an instrument of the Department for Evangelisation and Catechesis of the Bishops’ Conference of England and Wales. Fr Graffy is a past director of Brentwood’s Commission for Evangelisation and Formation and parish priest of Christ the Eternal High Priest in Gidea Park, Essex. Among his publications are the Gospel of Mark and the Letter to the Romans (Alive Publishing).
Listen to BBC Essex interview with Fr Adrian Graffy