THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT HOMILY YEAR C
Ex 3:1-8, 13-15 1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12 Lk 13:1-9. The Need to Reform. Cooperating with Grace; Vigilance; Another Chance; Conversion. Is there a connection between how we behave toward God, on the one hand, and our earthly fortunes, on the other? Between sin and suffering? In today’s Gospel, Jesus says not in this world. He gives two examples.
In his second example, Jesus tells the parable of the fir tree. The fig tree was a favourite of the Jews. Genesis, the first book of the Bible, tells that it was the leaf of the fig tree that covered the nakedness of Adam and Eve after they committed original sin. The Book of Revelation, the last book of the Bible, compares the falling of the stars from the sky at the end of the world with the falling of the figs from this tree. Between Genesis and the Book of Revelation there are about sixty other references to the fig tree, including the Jews’ model picture of the happy Jew as a man sitting under his fig tree at peace with the world.
But the fig tree takes a lot of nourishment from the soil. And there isn’t much arable soil in the Holy Land. So the fig tree had to justify its existence. In our Lord’s story, the master after three years wanted to cut down his unproductive fig tree, but was persuaded to give it a chance of one more year of care and fertilizing.
The fig tree in Jesus’ story is a reminder of the two kinds of human beings – those who give, and those who take. What the famous conductor Herbert Von Karajan said about orchestra conducing applies to life, “Technique you can learn. But what comes out of it is what you give as a human being.” Those who only take have to justify their existence. To accept Christ’s message is to be open to conversion. As the anonymous poet wrote:
If all the sleeping folks would wake up
And all the lukewarm would fire up
And all the disgruntled would sweeten up
And all the discourage would cheer up
And all the estranged would make up
And all the gossipers would shut up
Then there might come a REBIRTH IN CHRIST
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 to renew our cooperation with God’s grace. In cooperating with God’s grace, we shouldn’t be under – confident of what we can do.
In today’s First Reading, Moses was very conscious of his short comings. For one thing, he was brought up by others than his parents. And he was vulnerable. When he had seen an Egyptian persecuting a Jew, Moses had killed the Egyptian. When his crime became known, he had fled to Midian (beyond the Sinai peninsula), married the daughter of the wealthy pagan priest Jethro, and would have been content to live out the rest of his days there. He had no great gifts to talk about. He ever had a speech defect.
Yet God wanted him to go back to Egypt and negotiate the freedom of his people with the great Pharaoh Rameses II. Moses mentioned many reasons not to go back – all of the above, plus that he had a good thing going in Median and the Jews wouldn’t listen to him anyhow, and so on and on. One of his major reasons for lack of confidence was the very person of the Pharaoh. We can get a picture of the power and wealth of a pharaoh from the burial treasures of King Tutankhamen, which have toured the world. Moses knew that the Pharaoh, should Moses ever get to see him, would follow other non-Jews of the time and want to know the name of his god.
They believed, you see, that knowing another’s name would give them a certain power over him. In Egypt, newborn infants were given a pseudonym in order that the demons in the nether world might not know their real name and thus have a power over the infant. When Adam named the animals in the creation story, it is a sign that he had power over them. So Moses asked God His name.
At first, God tried to give a demonstration to give Moses some idea of who He was. He appeared, as He did at other times, as a fire. Fire is a good image of God, for several reasons. Its activity is intense, giving some notion of the inner life of God; it is very much a spiritual element; and the flames of fire always go upward, toward the heavens. So this ground on which God was appearingto Moses was holy. We must all grow to see the holiness of God in our lives. As the poet (Elizabeth Barrett Browning) put it:
Earth is crammed with heaven and every
Common bush on fire with God.
But only he who sees takes off his shoes, the rest
Sit and pluck blackberries.
Finally, God answered Moses, “I am who am” – that is to say. He who is, is who was, and who shall never cease to be. This was the origin of the Hebrew word for God, “Yahweh”, or “Jehovah”. It means many things. It means that God is pure Being. It means that God’s existence is eternal. It never had a beginning, and will never have an end. Before anything else – stars, galaxies, suns, planets – came to be, He is, Furthermore, He is the cause of everything else that is, and the one who sustains everything else in being.
Above all, “Jehovah” Means the contrast between the over-arching awesomeness of God and His intimate involvement with His people’s history – in technical terms, between God’s transcendence and His immanence. The Israelites considered the name of God so sacred that they never pronounced it. They used a round-about word instead. The only exception to that took place once a year for one person. The high priest was allowed to use God’s name on Yom Kippur in the Holy of Holies in the Temple. Even then, a blast of trumpets assured that unworthy mortal ears wouldn’t hear the holy name.
Reverence for God’s name has existed all over the world. A tradition going back at least to the seventeenth-century mathematician and philosopher Baise Pascal defines God as “a circle whose centre is everywhere and circumference nowhere.” Muslims have 99 beautiful names for God, such as “Merciful One”, “the Compassionate”, “the Almighty”, “the First”, and “the Last”, which they often recite on a rosary. Some Muslims suggest whimsically that only the camel knows the one-hundredth name of God, which accounts for the beast’s haughty air. In Africa, many traditional names have survived the influences of Jews, Christians, and Muslims in the way Africans address God. The one whom they call God includes no less than 589 names. Among these are Creator Who Spreads Things Out in the Attic of the Sky (Zambia), Father of Laughter (Nigeria), and Nursing Mother (Kenya/ Tanzania). Taoist priests in Taiwan honour “That Which Cannot Be Named”.
So Moses was transformed. He came to realize that, with this kind of Gog strengthening him, he could do anything. The rest is history –Moses’ continuing to lead the Jews from their slavery in Egypt, his ongoing guidance of their trek through the desert, and their final sight of the land of promise “flowing with milk and honey”.
On the other hand, our acceptance of God’s grace is the story of another extreme to avoid – overconfidence. St Paul reminds us in today’s Second Reading of God’s wonders that guided the Jews’ journey out of Egypt. They had the presence of God as they went, symbolized by the cloud, or shekinah, that was over them. They were able to pass through the waters when Egypt’s soldiers couldn’t. They were fed by a mysterious substance that fell from the heavens every night.
But they were overconfident of themselves and forgetful of God. When Moses went up Mount Sinai to converse with God, the people at the base of the mountain fell into the idolatry of the golden calf and succumbed to fornication.
The Israelites failed God miserably also by their constant complaining. They complained that the pursuing Egyptians would overtake and kill them. They complained that Moses spent too much time on the mountain. They complained through the desert that they were going to starve, and God sent manna. They complained about the taste of the manna, and God sent them quail. They complained that their enemy nations would be too strong for them. They complained that the Promised Land was not worth much. And they complained that they did not have enough water to drink.
The result? None of the generation that left Egypt, including Moses, was privileged to enter the Promised Land. They all died before they got there. It was their children who made it. Paul’s message to all is to be vigilant.
Answering for our sins with suffering this side of the grave does ant always happen. Nevertheless, we are all ultimately responsible for ourselves – our sins, shortcomings, imperfections, and “what might have been” had we cooperated with God’s grace. That means the constant need to reform, and openness to conversion –assessing how we see the success of our own lives in the light of eternity. This includes such details as how we treat the person at the supermarket check- out or the irritating driver ahead of us in traffic.
Moses’ people failed God. Jesus’ audience failed him pitifully, too, and the Corinthians’ self-serving failed Paul. We, too, can fail. As with the unproductive fig tree, Jesus is kind, loving, merciful, and patient. But he is not wishy-washy. He sets limits, and if we fail to respond he may be forced to say, as of the fig tree, “Cut it down.” Times of grace, like this lent, are times when we can satisfy the need to shore up our weakness and become more vigilant. Although we never know when our last chance will come, we know that this Lent, if we use it correctly, is a time of special grace. Am I continuing to respond to God’s love this Lent?