We read Holy Scripture in order to find there words of consolation, encouragement, hope, inspiration. But we also read in order to be confronted by very necessary words of sharp warning. Many times and in many ways our reading of Holy Scripture stirs us out of our complacency. Its words startle us out of our spiritual sloth. They awaken us to the harsh realities of our situation. They provoke us to repentance and conversion. It’s highly appropriate that we should read passages from scripture of this sort during lent.
In our first reading today from Exodus (3:1-15) we are reminded simply of the fact of God. God is. I AM WHO I AM, he says. God reveals himself indeed to Moses as Saviour of his people; as one who is intolerant of oppression and misery. But even before that, he reveals himself as all holy, and to be worshipped. So we have here a reminder, especially appropriate in lent, not to neglect God, not to forget him, not to act as if he did not exist, or as if he did not care.
Then in today’s brief passage from 1 Corinthians (10:1-12), St. Paul twice issues a warning to us, and spells out lessons for our benefit from Israel’s sacred history. In spite of the salvation offered to the people, most of them failed to please God, and their corpses littered the desert. We can easily enough imitate their example if we like, and like them be slain by the Destroyer. But it would be far better for us to avoid their sin. Let us at least be always aware that the man who thinks he is safe is the one most likely to fall.
Then we have the words of Jesus in today’s Gospel. They are recorded for us by St. Luke alone. We know St. Luke as the Evangelist who places special emphasis on the abundant mercy and compassion of God. But even Luke does not fail to include in their proper place the warnings, threats and rebukes of Jesus.
The response of Jesus to the disasters that are reported to him is startling. We modern liberal Westerners want Jesus to insist strongly that death is not a punishment for sin at all. We want him to raise his voice to denounce Pilate as an evil tyrant and murderer. Above all we want him to assure the relatives of those accidentally crushed at Siloam that this was just a dreadful accident, and in no way a sign of divine displeasure or punishment. Jesus says none of that. In fact he says the opposite. He presumes that death is indeed, in the last analysis, a punishment for sin. God pronounced Judgement over Adam after the Fall in terrible words: You will return to the ground, as you were taken from it. For dust you are, and to dust you shall return.
The point Jesus makes about the Galileans killed by Pilate, and those who died at Siloam, is not that they were not sinners, and not punished. It’s that we are all sinners, and will all be punished with death, as they were, unless we repent.
The scholars are not agreed about the historical background to either of these incidents. St. Luke seems to assume they would still be fresh in everyone’s mind, and so needing no extra detail. One rather attractive possibility for the sacrifice of the Galileans is that it’s the very same one recorded by Josephus, even though he says those involved were Samaritans. The Samaritans we know were regarded by orthodox Jews as heretical schismatics. Their sacrifices were offered to God not in the Temple at Jerusalem, but on Mount Gerizim. When a group of Samaritans gathered in abortive rebellion there, Pilate attacked them with superior forces and a massacre followed. Could that group have had some such nick name as Galileans? This is mere speculation of course, but if it were the case, the Jews around Jesus might well have seen it as divine punishment for those Samaritans. In Jewish eyes, their sin would not have been so much rebelling against Rome, as offering sacrifice in the wrong place and the wrong way. Jesus turns aside that interpretation. Surely also he hints darkly here about the forthcoming destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in the year 70 A.D. But more fundamentally, he warns us all: do not be complacent. Death is coming to everyone, and after death, judgement. Then we will have to account for our lives. And we must understand that the death of the body is only an image for the far worse death of the soul. We must hasten to put our lives in order now, lest when it is too late we be found enemies of God, and worthy of eternal separation from him.
Again by mere speculation, we can interpret the incident of the Tower of Siloam in a similar way. That tower stood by an aqueduct Pilate had built, using funds stolen from the Temple. Could it be that the tower fell down, whether by accident or design, just as a group of 18 Zealots were gathered underneath it, preparing to launch a punitive attack on the Romans? Jesus anyway does not involve himself here in questions about the fact or degree of their sin. He points rather to the suddenness of their death. And that will come to every one of us. As G.K. Chesterton somewhere remarks, in the modern world there is an appalling death rate of exactly 100%. While our life lasts, then, let us beware, and repent. Let us remember God, and put our house in order, and renounce our sin. What remains of our life on this earth, whether short or long, is given us as a truce. Like the fig tree, we have a bit more time left in order to produce fruits of holiness. We do that through works of religion, through self denial, and through charity. Above all, that is, we produce fruits of holiness through prayer, and fasting, and almsgiving.
The final judgement of God on sin is manifested for us supremely in the Cross of Jesus Christ. There we see displayed before us both the consequences of sin, and God’s response to it. That is: in place of sin, he offers us forgiveness, in Christ’s saving blood. In place of death, he offers us life, in Christ’s resurrection from the dead. But we have to accept the freely offered gift. We have to repent and be converted. Otherwise we risk being left in our sins; and then death for us will be the final horror and disaster.