Sermon for the Third Sunday in Lent, 3rd March 2013

Feb 26th, 2013 | By | Category: Sermons

Unless you repent, you too will all perish. Luke 13:5

If I go out and commit a crime, who is to blame for my actions?

In times past there would have been no doubt as to where responsibility lay, an individual would be held accountable for his or her own actions, no matter how harsh such a decision might have been. Your family might have been dying in poverty, but if you were to steal to try to feed them you would have been punished with the full force of the law.

The song so beloved of Irish rugby and soccer fans, ‘The Fields of Athenry’ is a ballad about a young man being transported to Australia for stealing corn to feed his starving family during the famine. Being transported was an improvement on previous centuries, when one could be executed for stealing something valued at more than one shilling

The harsh interpretation of the law in times past was clearly contrary to the Gospel teaching, on a number of occasions Jesus makes it quite clear that human need came before rigid application of the law – if your children had not enough to eat, then it was appropriate that you would do whatever you could to feed them. Movements for social reform in Britain and Ireland helped create a more tolerant society, and the law was applied in a way that took more account of the circumstances of the crime.

In the 20th century, social scientists, sociologists and psychologists, produced a series of studies suggesting that our circumstances weren’t just to be taken into account when passing judgment, they were in fact the cause, in whole or in part, of people becoming criminals in the first place.

We seem sometimes to have swung from one extreme to the other, from a situation where a person was completely responsible for their own actions, no matter what the circumstances were, to a situation where a person is seen as completely the product of their upbringing and environment, and is not at all responsible for their actions.

Where do Christians stand in this matter? The rather odd Gospel reading this morning can give us some clues.

A group of Jews tell Jesus about Galileans who have been killed by Pilate’s men in a violent clash at the Temple, and he refers himself to other Jews who were killed in another violent incident at the aqueduct that was being built at Siloam. Jesus makes the point that lawlessness and violence aren’t just the responsibility of these small groups of people. Twice he says to his listeners, ‘unless you repent, you too will all perish’.

Jesus is quite clear that crime and violence are a matter of concern for the whole of society and unless Jewish society is prepared to change it will be destroyed. Sadly, Jesus’ words were to come true in the disastrous Jewish revolt of AD 70 that led to the destruction of the Temple.

So, on the one hand, Jesus is saying that crime and lawlessness has a very strong social dimension and that it is a matter for the concern of everyone.

But Jesus then goes on to tell the rather odd parable of the fig tree that has produced no fruit.

The man in the parable says ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ And he is told, leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’ ”

The parable of the fig tree forcibly makes the point that if we don’t make use of the opportunities we have been given then we can expect to be held to account. The fig tree has been given three opportunities, now it is to be given one last chance and then it faces judgement.

His teaching about the responsibility of the whole Jewish people to change is balanced by this very strong teaching about individual responsibility, if you have not taken the opportunities you have been given, then that is your fault and the blame rests with you.

Both society and individuals bear responsibility for crimes, but where is the balance to be struck? What Jesus seems to be saying is that when a person has been given ample opportunities, then they should be more sharply called to account. It is not the case that the fig tree has been given just one chance and has failed, it has been given three chances and is given yet another one. Where a person has been given many opportunities in life, then it would seem that Jesus’ teaching is that the judgment should be more harsh, rather than more lenient.

Confronted with our contemporary society, I think Jesus would show great disappointment at our society in its careless approach towards social responsibility. I think he would warn us that if we don’t change then our society faces disintegration.

But I also think that, in administering the justice system, he would apply the logic of the parable of the fig tree, particularly to those responsible for the misleading of the country through the financial crisis. There would not be different systems of justice for different people; there would be some hard words for them to hear. The individuals would be held accountable for their individual failures, as the individual tree is judged for its individual failures.

‘Unless you repent, you too will all perish’, Jesus warns our society. ‘Unless you repent, you will perish’, Jesus warns each one of us.


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  1. Hi Ian, came on your blog to contact you not to read your sermon!! However l did, it is very thought provoking as most of your sermons that l have read, are. Our rector doesn’t preach sermons, he walks about for a few minutes and just usually talks about the Gospel reading, but there is nothing like listening to a good sermon and a good preacher. Now, i’ve flattered you enough, now to what l wanted to ask you. St Gobban, who as you know founded the monastery in Leighlin is supposed to have been buried in Clonenagh, l don’t suppose you would know anything about where?? I notice in your magazine notes, you mention Seir Kieran as being the most ancient Christian site in Cashel and Ossory, l wonder if the two places are connected. I found a reference to St Gobban being buried in Clonenagh at the beginning of my research, but unfortunately cannot find it now, and if l mention it, l need to footnote the source. If by any chance you know anything about Clonenagh and St Gobban being buried there, perhaps you’d be kind enough to let me know. It seems stange that St Gobban would have been buried in Co. Laois, when he went off to found another monastery in Killmary in Ossory when St Laserian arrived, it is hard to clarify anything that happened in the seventh century unless it is documented. Hope you may be able to help, if not, it doesn’t matter, i’ll get round it somehow. Just looked at Clonenagh on the Google map, it seems a deserted place even though it is on/off the main road out of Mountrath. Hope you are taking it a little easier, and are well. If you want to contact me you can always send a friend’s request to fb and leave me a message!!! or you have my e-mail address above. Many thanks, and Blessings to you.

  2. Ciaran the Elder was said to be pre-Patrician so Seir Kieran is ipso facto the oldest site in the diocese.

    Clonenagh was some centuries later. I conducted a burial service at the site last Sunday afternoon. There is little indication of its antiquity. I had not heard of Gobban, is he a variant of Gobhan, the patron of Seagoe Parish in Portadown?

  3. Hi Ian, no, St Gobban founded the monastery at Leighlin (Old) circa late 6th/7th century. He became the Abbot. He then left it to Laserian, as he was a very holy man, St Gobban decided to leave Laserian in charge of the monastery at Old Leighlin and went on to establish another religious house, possibly in Killmary in Ossory.
    According to sources, St Gobban was from Kill-Lamraidhe, in the west of Ossory, his feast day is the 6th
    of December. Again, according to sources, he was laid to rest in Clonenagh, where his relics are preserved.
    There is nothing much known about him apart from what l have just told you. Clonenagh seems to spring up in quite a few places, ie. The Red Book of Clonenagh which no longer exists, held all the records of the
    Synod of Rathbreasil. Not quite sure if he came from Ossory, why he should have been buried in Laois, but in those days l suppose people were buried in lots of places which differed from their own birthplace. The Synod of Rathbreasil was held in 1111, so, this red book, must have existed from that date, but why Clonenagh?? and it is surprising that this is the place where St Gobban is purported to be buried.
    I don’t think it is possible to know exactly where he is buried, but just thought it might be within your parish boundaries, but it is as you say not likely to yield any sign because it is too ancient. I might at a later stage visit Seir Kieran and take a photograph for my thesis, lt would be an interesting reference.
    Thankyou, appreciate your comments. Off now to meet the bishop in Leighlinbridge!! Take care.

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