3rd Sunday in Lent (C)
Between the Barren and the Burning
Readings: Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15; Psalm 103: 1-2, 3-4, 6-7, 8, 11; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12; Luke 13:1-9
Dear sisters and brothers, the story is told of a parishioner who put a big smile on her pastor’s face when she said to him, after Mass one Sunday morning, Congratulations, Father! That was a wonderful homily! But Father’s smile faded very quickly when he heard what she told him next: Everything you said applies to someone that I know!
Was the pastor’s homily really good? Did he truly deserve the compliment? We don’t know. The story doesn’t tell us. The point is that, good or bad, deserving or not, the homily was wasted on the parishioner. It was wasted because, if everything Father had said applied only to someone else, then nothing actually applied to her. Quite likely, on that Sunday morning, that parishioner left the church in the same condition as when she entered – unchanged and unrepentant.
And this is precisely the kind of condition that our readings are targeting today. They do this by inviting us to reflect upon the relationship between two types of plants: a barren tree and a burning bush. If we look closely enough, both these plants can be found, at least metaphorically, in each of our readings today.
Quite obviously, there is a burning bush in the first reading. But where is the barren tree? Consider what we know about Moses. On the one hand, we have to acknowledge that his life up to this point has been fruitful in some respects. He is a shepherd and a husband and a father. We’re told that it is while leading his father-in-law’s flock across the desert that he encounters the burning bush. And we know the reason why he has been reduced to living the life of a wandering herder of livestock, he who had once been a prince of Egypt. It is because he had tried to use his royal position to help his fellow Hebrews. He had killed an Egyptian bully, and so became a fugitive from the law. And yet, although fruitful in some respects, his life is still, in a very important sense, barren. It is barren because he has not yet begun to fulfill God’s plan for him. God wants him to shepherd not the flock of his father-in-law, but God’s own people – to free them from slavery in Egypt, and to lead them through the desert to the Promised Land.
And how does this remarkable transformation take place? How does the keeper of sheep become a leader of Israel? How does Moses become more fruitful? The process involves an intense encounter, even a painful struggle, between Moses and God, between the barren tree and the burning bush. It is only because Moses recognizes the presence of God in the bush that is on fire without being consumed – it is only because he is willing to engage in this difficult dialogue with God – that Moses is finally transformed into the person he is called to be. Of course, we might wonder what exactly was that burning bush that Moses encountered at Horeb. Was it quite literally a plant engulfed in flames? Or is this just a metaphor for some other kind of experience? We can’t be sure. And perhaps that’s really beside the point. The point is that, whether literal or metaphorical, the experience was not wasted on Moses. Rather, he allowed it to change his life. The barren tree came to bear much fruit.
Contrast that with what we find in the gospel. Here, it is, of course, the barren tree that is most obvious. Jesus uses this metaphor to refer to certain of the people of his day. Their lives are barren, not because they are bums, too lazy to get a job, or because they neglect their daily prayers, or fail to go to the synagogue on the Sabbath, or to keep the other commandments. Very likely they do all these things quite well. Their lives are already fruitful in some sense. And yet, like Moses, they are also still barren in another, very important, sense. They have not yet begun to fulfill God’s plan for them – especially to be light of the world and salt of the earth. And even more serious than their barrenness is their blindness. Unlike Moses, they refuse to acknowledge their own condition. They fail to see their own need for ongoing repentance. They are oblivious to the fact that, even if their lives are already fruitful in some respects, there is more that God expects of them. And this refusal to face the truth blinds them to something else. It renders them unable to recognize God’s presence in their lives. They fail or refuse to see the burning bush when they encounter it.
Consider what Jesus has to say about the reactions of these people to two disasters that had happened at that time. When Herod massacred a group of inhabitants of Galilee, and when a collapsing tower killed eighteen people in Siloam, some people responded by saying that the victims met their fates because of their sins. Instead of treating those disasters as burning bushes, or wake-up calls, these people were acting like that parishioner we talked about earlier. They were considering the disasters as messages from God addressed only to others. Those other people suffered because they were sinful. Which implies that we were spared because we are not. And this kind of attitude should probably sound very familiar. It is still very much with us even today. Didn’t some famous evangelical preacher recently pronounce that the earthquake in Haiti was the result of the Haitians having made a pact with the devil?
Were the victims of the Galilean massacre, or the people who died at Siloam, really more sinful than others? Did the Haitians really make a pact with the devil? It’s quite unlikely that anyone could present conclusive evidence one way or the other. But that’s not quite the point is it? The point is that by adopting this kind of outlook we are wasting the opportunity for repentance that this misfortune presents to us. Indeed, Jesus rejects this attitude outright. Do you think that because (they) suffered in this way, they were greater sinners…? Jesus asks. By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did! And Paul says the same thing in the second reading. Speaking about the trials that the Israelites underwent in the desert, Paul asserts that these things happened to them as an example, and… a warning to us…. Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.
Sisters and brothers, especially in this time of earthquakes and tsunamis, of hurricanes and flooding, it’s difficult to deny that we are indeed surrounded by burning bushes aplenty. And in addition to these disasters, more likely than not, many of us will also have encountered crises of a more personal nature. What is our reaction to all these experiences? Do we see in them messages that apply only to other people? Or are we willing to treat them as the wake-up calls that they could be? Life is fragile, for saint and for sinner alike. There’s no time to waste. God wishes to cultivate the still-barren areas of our hearts and our lives, so that we may continue bearing fruit, fruit that will remain.
Sisters and brothers, as we approach the middle of our Lenten journey, how willing are we to allow our barren tree to encounter the Lord’s burning bush? How determined are we to not let the Lord’s call to repentance go to waste?