Sunday, March 11, 2007

3rd Sunday of Lent
C cycle

Reading 1. Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15
Reading II. 1 Corinthians 10: 1-6, 10-12
Gospel. Luke 13: 1-9. (the unfruitful fig tree).

In today's first reading from the Book of Exodus we have the famous story of Moses and the burning bush. The Lord calls Moses from the fiery bush and tells him that He intends to free the people from their slavery and bring them to the promised land. Moses, however, is afraid that the Israelites might reject this news as well as his own leadership for the people would want to know who is sending him to lead them on this perilous journey. He says to the Lord, "if they ask me, 'What is his name?' what am I to tell them?"

As we enter deeper into the holy season of Lent we should put ourselves into the place of the Israelites and ask the same question. First we must know that it was considered impious for an Israelite to even use the name of God. We find it easy today, for reasons we shall see later, but for the Jew it was a dangerous expression of familiarity. To ask the name of God was really to ask, Who or What are you?

God's reply, "I am who am," is best left to the theologians for an explanation. We can only imagine that Moses must have felt that he had encountered something that he had never heard of before in the land of Egypt. He could no longer believe that there were many gods, or that God was a kind of nature god like Zeus or Neptune. Still less could he believe God could be some kind of idol. Even today we still have childish or hopelessly inadequate notions of who God is. For many of us the God of Moses and the Israelites is the Father, pictured by artists as an old man with a long white beard. It's hard to get this image out of our minds. Some even lose their faith because they can only imagine God as an angry, vengeful power ready to zap us as soon as we step out of line.
Some people like to take natural catastrophes or great human tragedies like 9/11 as signs that an angry God is punishing us. Our Lord specifically rejects this superstition in today's gospel. Our Lord says that the Galileans whose bodies were cruelly desecrated by the Roman governor were not necessarily sinners. Often the good will meet the same fate. In the same way our Lord (who seems well up on the news of the day) indicates that those poor people who were killed when a tower fell on them were by no means "more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem."

In other words when tragedy strikes, whether natural or man-made, we should be careful not to draw the wrong lesson. Our Lord knows that we live in a dangerous world and that bad things can happen to us. He is telling us to live each day or year as if it will be our last and to make the most of it.

To drive the point home, our Lord tells the parable of the fig tree that would bear no fruit. This story always reminds me of something that occurred in my own life. Years ago I had an elderly Italian man as a client. Periodically I would visit him and his wife at their home to go over their financial situation. Like many Italians he loved his garden. His prize possession was the largest chestnut tree that I have ever seen. One day I happened to tell him that I loved chestnuts or castagnas and he gave me two little shoots to plant in my own back yard. I did and within a few years they had both grown to a good height. As the years went by however they bore no fruit and so one day I mentioned it to my client and he offered to come up and have a look at them. After I showed him the shells with no fruit inside, he walked around the trees a bit and said practically the same thing that the gardener said in today's parable:

"leave it for this year also,
and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it;
it may bear fruit in the future."

To make a long story short, it worked and the tree began to bear fruit. Unlike the people we read about in today's newspapers, we have been given another chance to bear fruit. The time of Lent coincides with the coming of Spring. How many of us will be buying our lawn fertilizers, and getting out our spreaders in the next few weeks? What's the best kind of fertilizer to get for our souls?

Being born Catholic is not enough. Reception of the sacraments in our youth is not enough. St. Paul tells us in the second reading of the Israelites who perished in the desert even though they had been baptized, and received the same spiritual food, and the same spiritual drink. Just as we know that every year the lawn and the hedges are going to come up again, we know that life will present us with problems and opportunities each and every year.

In sports, last year's champion often fails to even make the playoffs this year. In business, your sales goals are reset every year and it doesn't matter what you did last year. Children, you might have been a big shot in junior high but now you are a lowly freshman in high school.

Therefore, let's take stock of our situation this Lent and start by being thankful that we have been granted another year to bear fruit. Because our Lord took flesh and died for our sins, we can now feel free to call Him by name. He is the gardener waiting to fertilize us with His grace. Let's follow St. Paul's advice:

Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure
should take care not to fall.

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