Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for the Third Sunday of Lent (24 March 2019)

Gospel for the Third Sunday of Lent (24 March 2019)

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down’” (Luke 13:1-9 – NRSV)

Introductory notes


Jesus – the Prophet – is on the way to Jerusalem. He takes the opportunity of the reports concerning two tragic events to emphasise the call to metanoia. The parable of the fig tree adds a note of seriousness, even urgency, to the call to metanoia. “Luke has Jesus respond to these reports of death in the city in classic prophetic style: they are turned to warning examples for his listeners. The people who died were not more deserving of death than others. One cannot argue from sudden and violent death to the enormity of sin. Indeed, Jesus himself will suffer a death that appears to be as much a punishment for sin. But the prophet’s point is that death itself, with the judgment of God, is always so close. It can happen when engaged in ritual. It can happen standing under a wall. And when it happens so suddenly, there is no time to repent. Rabbi Eliezer had declared that a person should repent the day before death (Pirke Aboth 2:10). But his disciples said that a person could die any day, therefore all of life should be one of repentance (bT Shab. 153a). The repentance called for by the prophet Jesus, of course, is not simply a turning from sin but an acceptance of the visitation of God in the proclamation of God’s kingdom” (Luke Timothy Johnson, The Gospel of Luke, Collegeville, MN: The Liturgical Press, 1991, 213).

This Gospel text is unique to Luke. However, we can see traces of Matthew’s story of the withered fig tree – see Matthew 21:18-22. Probably both have adapted the story of the fig tree found in Mark 11:12-14. Luke softens it however, by giving the fig tree a full year to prove its fruitfulness.


the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices: “The two incidents related in 13:1–5 are unique to Luke. None of the accounts concerning Pilate’s penchant for punishing Jews exactly matches this rendition, though they support the picture of him as an administrator who reached quickly for violent solutions (Josephus, Antiquities 18:85–89; Jewish War 2:169–177). The point of Luke’s recital is less the history of Pilate’s reign than of the need to repent” (Luke Timothy Johnson, op cit, 211).

Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners etc: In the Book of Deuteronomy, we find a series of blessings and curses that will come upon the people if they obey/disobey the Lord – chapters 28-30. Thus disaster is understood in popular piety to be a punishment for sin – see for example Job 4:17 and Ezekiel 18:26. We find this belief in John 9:2-3 and Luke 5:20-24. Jesus does not confirm or deny the popular belief. He simply directs the conversation towards the questioners and their need for metanoia. In turn, every one who wants to be a disciple must pay attention to this need for metanoia.

this fig tree: In the tradition, a fig tree often stood as a symbol of Judah or Israel – see Hosea 9:10; Micah 7:1; Jeremiah 8:13n & 24:1–10. This might suggest there is something quite particular and concrete about this exchange. We should therefore be careful when we attempt to draw a universal message.


On the first day of Lent, we have the simple and powerful ritual of the ashes. In the form of a cross, the ashes are traced on our foreheads with these or similar words: “Repent and believe the Gospel!” This is a stark symbol of a truth we forget at our peril. Ash Wednesday offers us a life-giving ritual of remembrance!

Fr Antonio Spadaro SJ is editor of the Jesuit publication in Rome, La Civilta Cattolica. In August 2013 he interviewed Pope Francis. Spadaro recalls the moment he asked the Holy Father the question: “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” “He, I remember, stared at me in silence. I thought at that moment that I had gone too far. He gave me a quick nod to let me know that he would answer, and then said slowly, ‘I do not know what might be the most fitting definition . . . I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner’. Francis, still reflecting, profoundly, said, ‘Yes, a sinner; but the best summary, the one that comes more from the inside and I feel most truly real, is this: “I am a sinner the Lord has looked upon”’” (Antonio Spadaro SJ, “The Reform of the Church According to Pope Francis” in For A Missionary Reform of the Church, edited by Antonio Spadaro SJ and Carlos Maria Galli, New York: Paulist Press, 2017, 5).

Pope Francis’ very honest, personal reflection, in the context of the Gospel call to repentance (metanoia), raises a serious challenge for us at this time. How do you feel saying, “I am a sinner”? I think it would be fair to say that, in the generations leading up to the Second Vatican Council, Catholics had drummed into them a distorted emphasis on sin and the eternal punishment that could follow. The lack of balance in this teaching was
destructive for many of us. Not surprisingly, there has been a reaction. Sin and our need for redemption have been set aside by many. The Cross, in the thinking of some, has also lost its place as a redemptive event and has been reduced to a mere consequence of Jesus being human at that time and place and getting off side with the Roman authorities. This is in fact a very dangerous misrepresentation of the Gospel testimony. The tragic reality of sin – which affects us all – demands the victorious reality of the Cross.

A down to earth, realistic sense of God’s love depends on a down to earth, realistic sense of sin. The life, death and resurrection of Jesus – the Paschal Mystery – is the greatest expression of God’s love and nowhere greater than on the Cross. An appreciation of this love depends on an appreciation of our absolute dependence on the Cross as central to our ability to become who and what we are. Repentance (metanoia) is no more nor less than an opening to the infinite love manifest in the Cross.