Jesus and Newtown

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3rd Sunday of Lent, Year C: March 3, 2013
Exod 3:1-8, 13-15; Ps 103; 1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12; Luke 13:1-9

It seems that, at any given time, there is some recent tragedy that weighs upon Americans’ minds. Right now, surely it is the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut, last December. Before that, perhaps the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado; the shooting at Virginia Tech; Hurricane Katrina; the 2004 tsunami; September 11; Columbine; and so on, with great historical acts of genocide always looming in background. We feel anger and grief and pain; we ask deep questions, especially of God. And we might even wonder: What if someone had asked Jesus about one of these events? What would he have said?

Except that someone did ask him about two of the tragedies of his time. And we know what he said; and, as usual, his response probably isn’t what we would have expected.

  • We read:  “Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.” This is an event that we have no other historical information about, outside of this sentence. It seems that the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who was known to reach for violent solutions to problems he faced, had had some Galileans attacked and killed right while they were offering sacrifice in the Temple—and committed the further atrocity having to do with their blood.
  • And then Jesus brings up another recent tragedy: “those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them”—which seems to refer to an area of Jerusalem near the Pool of Siloam, where a tower fell down.

Thus Jesus is treating a case of moral evil committed by a human being, and a case of natural evil in the collapse of a tower, seemingly without any human intention involved.

Like us today, people at the time were asking why. Why did these things happen? Why did those people die? Was it because they were greater sinners, they were more guilty than others? And do you notice what Jesus says? Regarding that particular question, he says, No, by no means. But otherwise he doesn’t answer the question. He doesn’t explain; he doesn’t speak to the particular tragedies that were named.

Now, we have to recognize that our Lord Jesus’ entire mission, his entire being, are about answering this question. He isn’t sitting back putting together a theodicy, an explanation of why it is okay that these things happen; that this is the best of all possible worlds, and it’s all okay, or whatever. No, it’s not okay! He has heard our cry, he knows what we are suffering, and he has come down to rescue us: emptying himself to take on our human nature (Phil 2:5-11); walking with us in our lives and our suffering, teaching and healing, raising up; and he will pour everything out in his Passion and death, to save us. “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” (Luke 19:10)

But he knows that, in order to save us, he will need our cooperation. He will need us to receive him and to respond to the grace that he gives—to welcome it in, to put it to use, to allow it to take root and grow and bear fruit. And so for that reason he gives the answer that he does, which is, essentially: don’t let those tragedies distract you. Those Galileans who were killed, that Tower at Siloam that fell, Newtown, Columbine, the hurricane, and the tsunami: don’t let those tragedies distract you from the changes that you need to make within your own heart, the ways you need to change, and the consequences that are affecting you, right now and in the future, if you do not.

It is too easy to get fixated upon those who suffer great evil, or upon those who commit it, and effectively distract ourselves from the changes the Lord asks of us, the next steps he wants us to take. How very American to turn every religion we encounter into an affirmation that we are just fine and only other people need to change! We even receive this message implicitly in the way that the Prayers of the Faithful at Mass are often written, when we pray for those who suffer evil and oppression, we pray for those who commit evil and oppression, and we fail to recognize that we suffer and need protection, we sin and need to repent, we need to change and turn and follow our Lord Jesus more closely.

And this is the fundamental message of Lent—of this annual holy season of grace: repent; be converted; change; turn away from sin, and turn toward our Lord, drawing ever closer to him.

We are now 2½ weeks into Lent. Are you different than you were 18 days ago? Have you changed?

  • Have you turned away from serious sin? St. Paul in our second reading warned the Corinthians about idolatry, putting someone or something first, above God; and about immorality, including any sexual activity outside of marriage.
  • Have you turned away from smaller, venial sins? St. Paul similarly warns against testing Christ and against grumbling.
  • Have you taken these sins to the sacrament of confession, so that you can be forgiven and receive grace to strengthen you in the future?—And remember that we do not give up sins for Lent, to take them back up after Easter! We give them up forever!
  • Have you set aside things that, while they might not be sinful, hold you back and weigh you down from loving Christ and serving him, as much as he desires? These could be possessions, habits, relationships, or other things in your life.

For our Lord Jesus wants to save you. He has heard your cry, he knows what you are suffering, and he has come down to rescue you. He wants to set you free from sin, and to make you beautiful, radiant, strong, and fruitful. Our Lord Jesus loves you and he believes in you. He wants to make you into a saint. Will you let him?

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