03Mar 3rd March 2013. 3rd Sunday of Lent

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Exod 3:1-8,13-15. God sees the misery of his people in Egypt. He will set them free, through the leadership of Moses.

1 Cor 10:1-6,10-12. Though many escaped from Egypt into the desert, many of them later fell away from god. We must persevere, in order to be saved.

Lk 13:1-9. Misfortunes are no indication of who has sinned. Yet Jesus stresses the need for repentance and for using the time that is given to us.

Theme: Like the barren fig tree, a lax Christian may be cut down. The Lord of the vineyard offers us yet another chance to bear fruit.

See Tarsus.ie for  detailed comment on this Sunday’s Gospel and introductions to all three readings.

First Reading: Exodus 3:1-8, 13-15

Moses was keeping the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian; he led his flock beyond the wilderness, and came to Horeb, the mountain of God. There the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a flame of fire out of a bush; he looked, and the bush was blazing, yet it was not consumed. Then Moses said, “I must turn aside and look at this great sight, and see why the bush is not burned up.” When the Lord saw that he had turned aside to see, God called to him out of the bush, “Moses, Moses!” And he said, “Here I am.”

Then he said, “Come no closer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place on which you are standing is holy ground.” He said further, “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”

And Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God. Then the Lord said, “I have observed the misery of my people who are in Egypt; I have heard their cry on account of their taskmasters. Indeed, I know their sufferings and I have come down to deliver them from the Egyptians, and to bring them up out of that land to a good and broad land, a land flowing with milk and honey, to the country of the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Amorites, the Perizzites, the Hivites, and the Jebusites.

But Moses said to God, “If I come to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your ancestors has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I AM WHO I AM.” He said further, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘I AM has sent me to you.'” God also said to Moses, “Thus you shall say to the Israelites, ‘The Lord, the God of your ancestors, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you’: This is my name forever, and this my title for all generations.

Second Reading: First Epistle to the Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12

I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless with most of them God was not pleased; for they were overthrown in the wilderness. nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.

Gospel: Luke 13:1-9

At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them-do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.” Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next ear, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.'”

On not Wasting Space

The 19th century German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, is reputed to have said about the Irish vis-à-vis the Dutch: “If Ireland had been inhabited by the Dutch, it would be the bread-basket of Europe, while if Holland had been occupied by the Irish, it would long ago have been drowned by the sea.” It might be argued that the Irish have other gifts which enhance the quality of life, like sociability and humour, not as prominent among the Dutch, or indeed among Bismarck’s own compatriots. But when it comes to industriousness, one is forced to admit that Ireland leaves much to be desired. When I first travelled in Europe, I was instantly struck by the extensive cultivation of the land. There did not seem to be an inch of ground left fallow between Le Havre and Paris. Nothing but huge expanses of land growing maize, wheat, corn and other crops I could not identify. I later saw the same in Germany in places like the Ruhr valley, where factory smoke-towers stood out in large fields of corn, like ships in the ocean. Returning home, I was aware of our wild Irish countryside, large tracts of which seem untouched by human hand. It seems ironic that a people who fought so passionately for the land, should have neglected it so much.

All of which brings me to the parable of the barren fig tree. It is a parable of our lives. All of us have been given a patch of ground in the Lord’s vineyard, where we are expected to produce fruit. Each one’s patch is different, often yielding different fruit. Many choose to rear families. Some also run businesses or contribute to the running of them or work at different levels in institutions. Nowadays a large percentage is engaged in what are called the “caring professions,” working in education, medicine, the social services, religion, as teachers, doctors, nurses, social workers, priests and in similar fields. And if we are to bear fruit in our lives, the crop has to come largely from those fields.

It is a salutary thing to take stock of our little holdings and see what our returns are like. A farmer likes to take a stroll through his land on a summer’s evening, after the day’s work is done. And there, leaning up against a farmyard gate, he casts his eye over the growing crops and the grazing animals, thinking about what he has done and what remains to be done to ensure a good harvest. So it should be with us. We could take stock of the quality of our family life, of our involvement or lack of it in our community, of our commitment to our jobs and our colleagues, over and above the statutory requirement. We all find a niche for our selves in this world where we become entrenched. We feel we’ve earned our place. But we have to go on earning our place.

Otherwise, like the barren fig-tree, we are only “taking up the ground.” There are few of us, if we are humble enough, who would not admit that maybe someone else could do a better job than us. None of us is indispensable. Not even Bismarck, with his enormous contribution to the creation of Germany. Modern Germany would have come into being without him and possibly without such horrendous consequences to the Germans and the rest of the world. Like the barren fig tree, we are all given many chances to bear fruit. Let today’s gospel be one of them.

But for the Grace of God

There was an old man who maintained his subscription to the daily newspaper even though he had virtually stopped reading. His neighbour asked him why he maintained a subscription to a newspaper he hardly ever read. This was his reply. “Every morning, before any other thing, I look up the obituary section of the newspaper to see if my name is there. If I don’t find my name there, I kneel down and thank God for the gift of another day.”

Imagine today’s gospel as giving us a rare glimpse into the obituary section of a Jerusalem daily newspaper one day in the lifetime of Jesus. That particular day, the story of the dead took up not only the obituary section but the front page headlines as well: “Bloodbath in the Temple, Pilate Slaughters Suspected Galilean Terrorists,” “Tower of Siloam Collapses, 18 People Feared Dead.”

What was the common reaction of the religious people of Jerusalem to such news of human disaster and misfortune? About the Galileans they probably said, “Serves them right. They were probably terrorists.” About those crushed to death they would say, “Well, that is an act of God. God knows why those eighteen deserve to die at this time, in this manner.” And they would flip the page for more interesting news, such as the survivor in the previous day’s gladiators in the arena.

The people who broke the news to Jesus conveyed it with the same “serves-them-right” attitude. Jesus could not contain himself in the face of such ignorance and self-justification. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them – do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did” (Lk 13:2-5).

In the face of a natural disaster or personal misfortune befalling other people, it is wrong to suppose that they must have done something to deserve it which those who are free from the disaster did not do. The right disposition is to realise that it could happen to anybody, and that if it does not happen to us at this time, it is because of God’s mercy and love and not because we have deserved it. Back in sixteenth century England the Reverend John Bradford was asked what he thought of the criminals who were being led to public execution, and his reply was: “But for the grace of God, there goes John Bradford.” We can see the same attitude in our old man who reads the obituary column everyday. He knows that but for the grace of God his name would be there on that page.

The attitude: “but for the grace of God, there go I” helps us make the best of the opportunity God gives us in prolonging our lives from day to day, from week to week, from year to year. We realise that, like the barren fig tree, the extra time has been given to us for a purpose, as a chance to bear fruit. The misfortunes of the less fortunate are not an occasion to stand in judgment over them but an invitation to humble repentance, knowing that “unless you repent, you will all perish just as they” (v. 5). Next time we hear about earthquakes and plane crashes in the news, let us realise that it could happen to anybody, and that if we have been spared such disasters it is so that we might repent and bear fruit worthy of repentance.

Today, we thank God for the “gardeners” who mediate and intercede for us before God. We know that Jesus is the Great Gardener who intercedes and mediates for us. In practice, however, Jesus fulfills this role through women and men who function as members of Christ’s body. The gardeners in our lives who have helped us to move from barrenness to fruitfulness include our parents, teachers, pastors, friends, and even our enemies who have motivated us by their bitter criticism which more often than not turns out to be true. We thank God for them, we thank God for giving us another opportunity this Lent, and we promise to make the best use of this season of grace to repent more and to bear more fruit in our lives.