The Holy Week liturgies of the passion which we will celebrate in a few weeks time include the reading and singing of the passion narratives. And when we hear those passion stories we get quite an insight into the character of Pontius Pilate. In particular, we see him as the unjust coward, who didn’t have the guts, or perhaps even the inclination, to do the right thing. But other sources from that time show that he was much more than just a coward. The Jewish historian Josephus portrays him as a man who went out of his way to disturb and offend the Jewish population, especially when it came to their religious practice.
At the beginning of today’s Gospel, we hear a little about one such incident. The people report to Jesus that Pilate had mingled Galilean blood with their sacrifices, presumably a reference to an act of violence against the Jews in the Temple – a violation of human rights on sacred ground. The people are in shock that such a thing has happened, and Jesus seems to anticipate the question that is turning around in their minds ‘why have these people suffered? What have they done to deserve this?’ Surely there must be a reason. It’s the same kind of question we might ask in the face of any of the atrocities of modern times.
In response to their thoughts, Jesus seems to do something rather perverse. He seems to heap on more anxiety by mentioning a disaster – the fall of the tower of Siloam, which killed eighteen people. It’s even harder to explain a disaster of that kind than to explain why someone might try to harm us. It seems senseless and random, just like the recent earthquake and tsunami in Chile.
It’s significant, I think, that when Jesus responds to the people’s hidden anxieties, he doesn’t provide an answer to the problem of suffering. He offers no solution to the problem, other than to state clearly that this kind of suffering and death doesn’t just affect the evil – it affects the good too. These kinds of events seem to be a fact of human existence. And Jesus doesn’t say that everything will be OK, or promise that similar things won’t happen again. The answers we so desperately want to the problem of suffering can’t be given in a sentence or a sound-bite. Jesus does have something to say about suffering and death, and he will say it powerfully through the events of Holy Week. We’re not there just yet, so let’s stick to what he says in today’s Gospel.
Jesus doesn’t dismiss the worries of the people as silliness and a waste of time, or simply provide a few words of comfort. Instead he responds to the tragic events with an invitation. What he asks them is to focus their minds. He asks them for metanoia, a word that is usually translated as ‘repentance’, but in a more literal sense means ‘a change of mind’. He invites them to think differently about the way they live their lives, and to put this new mindset into action in what they say and in what they do.
Lent is a time for doing penance, and we make all kinds of gestures as a way of expressing this. But of course the result of these disciplines of fasting, of generosity towards others and of prayer shouldn’t just be a temporary spring clean of the soul. It’s about changing our minds, about reorienting ourselves permanently towards the good, a decision to choose the life that God offers us, and to keep choosing it each day from now on.
This reorientation is an important way to help us deal with life. It’s what we might call a stress buster, because it takes our attention away from fear of the unknown, the worry about the suffering that the future may hold. It focuses us on the present moment, on the things that we do have some degree of control over – our attitudes to God, to ourselves and to others.
The parable of the barren fig tree that Jesus tells adds a dose of realism to the need for conversion. In it, we can see that Jesus recognises the two extremes of the human approach to the need for change. On the one hand, there is the overly casual approach – mañana syndrome – where anything that we can do today can be put off until tomorrow. On the other hand there’s the overly optimistic, workaholic approach, which tries to do everything all in one go – the burnout approach. And the parable offers a more manageable middle ground to these extremes.
The reality is that conversion takes time and a lot of grace. It requires us not only to make up our minds that we want to change, but also for us to be willing to work patiently with God’s help to allow the change to happen. So we need to set ourselves on the road, and be patient and merciful with ourselves if it takes a while to get things right. When in comes to living with God, we work to God’s timetable, not ours.
But there’s one thing we should remember. We need to take that first step – the step which is a yes to Christ, a yes to his kingdom, a yes to living and loving as he wants us to. And we need to take that same first step again each day – not just every day of our Lenten journey, but every day of our lives. It’s by doing this that we will become the kind of people that we are called to be – fruitful people what are fit for God’s kingdom.