The Day of Salvation

“Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3).

“Where were you when the world stopped turning on that September day?” asked country singer Alan Jackson. How did you respond? His song details all kinds of ways that people faced the fear and uncertainty of that time: “Did you shout out in anger . . . weep for the children … did you dust off your Bible … or go out and buy you a gun?” Perhaps most pointedly he asks, “did you look up to heaven for some kind of answer, and look at yourself to what really matters?”

Tragedies on the scale of those terrorist attacks or the recent earthquakes in Haiti stir us in powerful ways. They open deep fears, break our hearts, and force us to ponder “what really matters.”

In this Sunday’s gospel, the crowds asked Jesus what he made of two tragedies from the headlines of his day. Galilean pilgrims killed by Pilate as they offered sacrifice in Jerusalem; a tower that collapsed, killing 18 bystanders. Is there logic behind such things? Was God punishing them for sins worse than ours? It’s not so simple, Jesus tells them.

He doesn’t deny the reality of judgment or the fact that sins deserve to be punished. But these people weren’t any worse than the rest of us. You must repent, he tells them, so you don’t also perish. Their fates should remind you that life is fragile, that none of us knows how long we have. The day of salvation is now. Don’t put off doing God’s will.

It was an odd answer — almost to another kind of question. I am a philosopher enough to wish that Jesus hadn’t passed up the chance to close this age-old argument once and for all. But maybe Jesus knew that when we can explain evil, we can also distance ourselves from it.

If the Galileans deserved their fates, then it is no concern of ours. His real warning, like St. Paul’s in today’s epistle, is against presumption, assuming that we are in the right. “Let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall,” St. Paul warned his “once saved, always saved” enthusiasts. The Israelites too were blessed with God’s grace, but they fell in the wilderness. You have been spared. Let God’s patience not be in vain. Do “what really matters” now, because there may not be another tomorrow.

Look it Up

Read I Peter 4:12-19. Does this text’s understanding of God’s place in suffering conflict with Jesus’ teaching here?

Think About It

The crowd might have asked Jesus about the Galilean pilgrims because they were His own countrymen. How do his words here explain his own purpose in Jerusalem?

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