Third Sunday in Lent
God said: Do not come near! Remove your sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground. I am the God of your father,* he continued, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. (Ex 3:5,6)
Poor old Pontius Pilate! He is one of our Gospel characters who manages to split people into different camps, some think he wasn't all that bad, others, based on on tales of his brutality such as Luke's mention of the slaughter of the Galileans in the Temple, or his later killing of Samaritans at Mount Gerazim, which the historian Josephus mentions was the reason he was removed from Judea, suggest the was a brutal and cruel man. We just don't know! Whatever we might think about Pilate, the overall impression we gain of him is perhaps more ambivalent, so the story of the slaughter of the Galileans would have been, not so much a personal vindictive act, but something sanctioned by the State. The reason it is mentioned is not to denigrate Pilate, but to make us ask that perennial question, "Why?" "Why were these slaughtered, what had they done to deserve this?" What is the deeper meaning of this slaughter especially horrible given it is the context of a religious space!.
In one sense, this is a question almost too pertinent for our age, which has a specific capacity for making everybody a victim of something, including religion! We continually ask why were these people victims, like the ones on whom the tower at Siloam collapsed, or Grenfell Tower or any of the recent mass shootings across the globe? We want an answer, but shockingly, when Jesus is asked this question he does not try to find a scapegoat or point a finger at Pilate, the Romans or bad builders, or lead people into thinking that it was some form of bad karma because they had sinned, no, Jesus says something else; " -do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!" (Lk 13:4,5)
That in itself is a shocking statement, thrusting apparent negativity into our own lives, suggesting we too need to watch out, repent of our many sins, just in case…! We aren't used to this stark language about sin in modern society, whilst I have no intention of going back to an older version of religious intolerance that dwelt on particular sins in order to create guilt, I still believe that we need to have a robust and realistic attitude towards our wrongdoings. This is a good time to do it, after all it is Lent, when we take stock of ourselves and we are openly called to repent of our sins.
In one sense Jesus' talk about sin "is oddly comforting" as somebody so carefully put it, because here Jesus is taking away any sense of randomness, that bad things just happen and 'sorry' if you are in the way! Instead pointing out that at the root of much that is bad, human failing is sin helps us move on. The Lent call to repent is also the call to be more aware of our vocation to conversion of heart. Paul puts it bluntly: "Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall." (I Cor 10: 12)
But there is a little more in this Gospel, it is a reminder from Jesus that we have chances, like the non-producing fig tree to try again, we might do better, may have another chance to move on. I like to think that we have gotten Pilate wrong, that in meeting Jesus at a moment of salvation, Pilate too was touched by the sacrifice and gift of the Son of God, and hopefully found forgiveness just as we can by facing the Saviour, did he move on? I don't know, that answer is left to God! We often discover, as Moses found, that the Living God is too much for us to face directly, unlike Moses but like Pilate, through Jesus we can stand on holy ground, to be forgiven, redeemed, and look Christ directly in the face!
Canticle - 1 Peter 2:21b-24
The willing acceptance of his passion by Christ, the servant of God
Christ suffered for you,
and left you an example
to have you follow along in his footsteps.
He did no wrong;
no deceit was found in his mouth.
When he was insulted,
he returned no insult.
When he was made to suffer,
he did not counter with threats.
Instead, he delivered himself up
to the One Just Judge.
In his own body
He brought your sins to the cross,
so that all of us, dead to sin,
could live in accord with God's will.
By his wounds you were healed.
From : Dietrich Bonhoeffer, life Together: The Classic experience of Christian Community
"The most experienced psychologist or observer of human nature knows infinitely less of the human heart than the simplest Christian who lives beneath the Cross of Jesus. The greatest psychological insight, ability, and experience cannot grasp this one thing: what sin is. Worldly wisdom knows what distress and weakness and failure are, but it does not know the godlessness of man. And so it also does not know that man is destroyed only by his sin and can be healed only by forgiveness. Only the Christian knows this. In the presence of a psychiatrist I can only be a sick man; in the presence of a Christian brother I can dare to be a sinner. The psychiatrist must first search my heart and yet he never plumbs its ultimate depth. The Christian brother knows when I come to him: here is a sinner like myself, a godless man who wants to confess and yearns for God's forgiveness. The psychiatrist views me as if there were no God. The brother views me as I am before the judging and merciful God in the Cross of Jesus Christ."
Fr Robin Gibbons is an Eastern Rite Catholic Chaplain for Melkites in the UK. He is also an Ecumenical Canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford.
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