Third Sunday of Lent March 07, 2010

Exodus 3:1-8a,13-15; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6,1-12; Luke 13:1-9

On this third Sunday of Lent, the church invites us to reflect on the urgency of repentance in an attempt to enhance our Christian lives. During this time of Lent there is great emphasis on examining our lives and changing for the better through repentance. There is an insistence on the necessity of a change or transformation of the heart. One of the recurrent themes throughout the Lenten season is the compassion and mercy of our God. It is something that we constantly need to be reminded about.  Repentance entails the recognition of areas of unfaithfulness in our lives and being ready to make reparations. Repentance demands that we become honest to ourselves and recognise our unfruitfulness. Once we have accepted this change in our lives God has a ready mission for us. He wants us to fulfil his mission on earth. Thus today’s readings are directing us to take a good look at ourselves. In the parable in the Gospel of today, Jesus speaks of the tree which is alive but it bears no fruit. There is a demand that it should be cut down. The man responsible for the tree asks the owner to give it one more year to fulfil its purpose. If after that, there is still no fruit, it should be cut down. Moses in the Book of Exodus is told to forget his weaknesses and fright and go and perform the task of freeing people from slavery. Paul in the second reading tells us that we are all God’s people chosen ones and called upon to live purified lives for Christ.

While reflecting on today’s First Reading taken from the Book of Exodus, we hear of the concern of God towards his people in Egypt.  He sees the headships of his chosen people and observes their misery. He had heard their cries on account of their taskmasters and takes initiative to liberate them from the Egyptian masters. At the same time the passage narrates the wonderful experience of Moses at the Burning Bush. When Moses encountered God in the burning bush he was just an ordinary shepherd caring his father in law’s sheep. He had run away from Egypt and he was very conscious of his own shortcomings. He had no great gift to talk about God or any one for he had a speech defect. Moses had his own way of life, plans, preferences and ideas that determined his course of action. But once he confronted God he never hesitated to respond to his call. God places before him the fresh situation of Egypt and that He is fully aware of the untold suffering of His people.  God wants him to go and now being touched by God Moses is more than ready to help them. God revealed to Moses in the burning bush as he reveals to us even today.  He told him to go to his people whom he cares so much. God already shows him his power in the fire, fire that burns and not consumes. Fire is the image of God and expresses his divine presence. Our “burning bushes” could be the poor needing our help, the sick and prisoners needing our visitation. This is how God makes use of his instruments to prepare them for their mission.

The Second Reading taken from the First Letter to the Corinthians provides us with more information about God’s people; we learn that God did free His people from slavery. They were all baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. They all ate the same spiritual food in the desert. They all drank the same spiritual drink which God gave them. But, even though they were God’s people, he was not pleased with most of them for their behaviour. He struck them down in the wilderness, tested them and they remained there for forty years.  These things occurred as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil as they did. And we should not complain about this righteousness of God. Those who complained in the days of Moses, they were destroyed by the Destroyer. As St. Paul said, these things happened to serve as a lesson. And they were written down to instruct us. So he admonishes them, if we think we are standing, we better watch out that we do not fall.

In today’s Gospel, some people approach Jesus and tell him of how some Galileans had been killed by Roman soldiers in the Temple sanctuary. It was said that Pilate had built the much needed aqueducts in Jerusalem using the Temple money. The Galileans were angry at this and they protested. Pilate sent the soldiers to mingle among them during the festival and had them killed for their revolt. Jesus seems to be aware of the tragedy. History, of course, says nothing of Pilate’s act here mentioned. Pilate’s rule was marked by cruelty toward Jews, and contempt for their religious views and rites. Now Jesus responds by taking another track altogether. Instead, he mentions another incident, apparently a pure accident when a building fell on some purely innocent people and killed many. Jesus asks his questioners whether it is their sin that brought the innocent people to death.  He indeed wants us to think of the many accidents that take place daily. He wants to clear the common belief that such events are acts of punishment by God. Perhaps even more frequently one meets people who ask why a loving God does not prevent such things happening.

The response of Jesus is built around the event, where people are taken away by sudden death. Of this instance, namely the tower of Siloam also, there is no other historic mention. It too was a small incident among the accidents of the day.  Towers that are built for safety often prove to be men’s destruction. Jesus cautioned his hearers not to blame great sufferers, as if they were therefore to be considered great sinners. When on earth no place or employment can be considered secure from the stroke of death, we should consider the sudden removal of others as warnings to ourselves. On these accounts Christ founded a call to repentance. The same Jesus bids us to repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand; or again he bids us repent, for otherwise we shall perish. This also brings to our mind the problem of suffering why God allows people to suffer.  Jesus answers: “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” He calls on them to be always ready to face God and face the eventualities of life. The point is clear. Tragedies occur, whether intentionally by oppressive governors such as Pilate or accidentally by imperfections in the kind of world we live in. In neither case must one conclude that tragedies are necessarily an indication of divine judgment against sinners. Rather, in view of the uncertainty of life and the unpredictability of the future one must be warned to examine one’s own life and repent in order to be perfect before the Lord.

The Gospel Reading mentions of parable of Jesus about the fig tree.  This parable immediately follows after Jesus explained that sin is offensive to God, that it deserves severe punishment.  Sin is understood as missing the mark and a negation of his presence.  In the parable that Jesus told, a man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard. When the man went to look at it for a fruit, he found none on it. The tree had now been without fruit for three consecutive years. Finally, tired of that useless tree, the man told the gardener to cut it down. Upon hearing this, the gardener asked the owner to patiently wait another year during which time he would dig around the tree and put manure on it in the hope that it would bear fruit. If that helps after one year and there are fruits on it, good; if not, then it should be cut down. The fig tree was a favourite tree of the Jews. It was a tree of peace where a happy Jew sat for his regular prayers. Here is the fig tree that had taken so much of nourishment from the soil. At the same time there is not much arable land in Israel. So the fig tree had to justify its existence.

In the parable the master had already waited for three years and the gardener asks for another year where it would receive extra care. The fig tree reminds us of two kinds of human persons, those who give and those who take. Those who give symbolise the sacrifice they make and fulfil the purpose of their existence. They give what they have without holding back anything for themselves and this is in generosity. Those who only take have to justify their existence. They have to fulfil their purpose of existence.  To accept Christ’s message is to be open for conversion and change of heart. It invites the person to bear fruit and fulfil the purpose for which it has been created, namely to give. Repentance or Conversion means to respond to God’s care for us, to devote ourselves to a life of vigilance day in and day out and constantly renew our cooperation with God’s grace. In cooperating we must be confident as to what we ought to do and how generously we have to perform. The unpredictability of the end and the urgent need for preparedness is a theme of today’s Gospel.  Jesus’ reply would have shocked all. One would expect that Jesus would at least lash out against Pilate and call down curses on such a cruel man. But no such venomous vindictiveness is pronounced against Pilate. Instead he tells the reporters: “unless you repent, you will all perish.” They themselves are in need of repentance, implying that Jesus is more concerned about the renewal of the hatred and a vengeful attitude.

During this season of lent we ask the grace to live in a continual spirit of renewal and repentance. Repentance demands that we become honest to ourselves and recognise our unfruitfulness and change ourselves to bear the right fruit for God. Moses was asked to change his view and do his mission. Each fig tree is expected to bear fruit that represent the good works and virtues of those who help to build the Body of Christ. Each must answer his calling according to where he has been sent by God. The fig tree is called upon to be generous in the fulfilment of the mission.  We have to recognise our nothingness before God and be ready to receive him during this season of lent. It is only after such a serious reflection that we shall have that remorse for our failures. Let us ask ourselves, whether God is using this Lenten Season to shower his abundant graces upon us through Jesus Christ so we will repent and transform our lives. 

John D. Rockefeller built the great Standard Oil Empire. Not surprisingly, Rockefeller was a man who demanded high performance from his executives. One day, one of those executives made a two million dollar mistake. Word of the man’s enormous error quickly spread and all were scared to meet the boss. One man didn’t have any choice, however, since he had an appointment with the boss. So he straightened his shoulders and walked into Rockefeller’s office. As he approached Rockefeller’s desk, he looked up from the piece of paper on which he was writing. “I guess you’ve heard about the two million dollar mistake our friend made,” he said abruptly.  “Yes,” the executive said, expecting Rockefeller to explode. “Well, I’ve been sitting here listing all of our friend’s good qualities, and I’ve discovered that in the past he has made us many more times the amount he lost for us today by his one mistake. His good points far outweigh this one human error. So I think we ought to forgive him, don’t you?”

Fr Eugene Lobo SJ, Rome


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