Third Sunday of Lent
The Book of Exodus, source of the first reading, recalls the encounter between God and Moses at the burning bush. Moses is reported as tending his father-in-law’s flock. Suddenly an angel appeared and led Moses to a bush. The bush, although on fire, did not burn.
Then God spoke, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. The message is simple. God always is with the people, aware of their plight. He always was, and is, merciful, sending leaders such as Abraham, Isaac and Jacob to bring hope, relief and guidance.
Moses, in his turn, was God’s instrument of this relief, sent to lead the people out of Egypt.
God, although present, is sublime, almighty and above all. Moses could not stand to look upon God’s face. Knowing his own limitations, Moses removed his footwear to show respect even for the ground upon which he met God.
Finally, God revealed the divine name to Moses, a supreme revelation. In Hebrew tradition, names contained the very being of the person. To know a person’s name was to touch the person’s identity.
The First Epistle to the Corinthians provides the second reading. Corinth’s Christian community challenged Paul, since the city was an utter pit of excesses and moral outrages, and Christians were vulnerable.
Nevertheless, Paul insisted that Christians had to follow the Gospels despite the difficulties. He warned the Corinthians, encouraged them, scolded them, implored them, taught them and sought to inspire them. This reading is typical.
He referred to the history of God’s people, giving it as proof that without God’s guidance, without the nourishment provided by God, people die. Earthly resources could never protect or sustain them. St. Paul insists that God alone is the source of true life.
St. Luke’s Gospel furnishes the last reading, giving one of the rare glimpses of Pontius Pilate in the Gospels outside the Passion Narratives themselves. It hardly is complimentary to him. Pilate, who so casually sentenced Jesus to an agonizing death, was ruthless and unmerciful in many cases. He also had no regard for the God of Israel, or for the religion of the people who worshipped the God of Israel. An ancient tradition is that he was recalled to Rome because of his brutality, a brutality too vicious even by the brutal standards of Roman imperial governance.
Jesus said that the victims of Pilate’s heartlessness did not deserve what they received. Jesus referred, then, to an accidental disaster, when 18 people were killed by a falling tower in Siloam. He noted that they, too, were innocent. The Lord made this basic point. All those to whom Jesus referred in the end died, innocent or not. None could control evil decisions by evil persons or the mishaps of nature or invented things.
The manner of one’s death, however, is unimportant. All people die.
Jesus tells the people to reform, giving the parable of the barren fig tree. The owner wants to destroy the tree, but the vinedresser pleads for enough time to nourish the tree in the hope that it will bear fruit. The tree must bear fruit.
We continue to move through Lent. The Church in these readings is very frank, telling us that abandoning God reaps a whirlwind of calamity, drawing into its wake even the innocent. Thus were killed the victims of Pilate’s outrage.
Still, all humans will die under some circumstances. Death is, as physicians say, “inevitable.” Even so, death is not necessarily eternal damnation. The Church gives us Lent to assist us in being with God, now and in the next life. If we stumble, God forgives and is ready to strengthen us.
Remember the fig tree. God is patient, but one day will be our last on earth. It is up to us.
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