3rd Sunday of Lent (C)
Picture: cc Inga La Puma
Sisters and brothers, some of you may remember the story that is told of a parishioner who put a big smile on the priest’s face when she said to him, after Mass one Sunday morning, Congratulations, Father! That was a wonderful homily! But Father’s smile quickly faded when he heard what she told him next: Everything that you said applies to someone whom I know!
Was Father’s homily really good? Did he truly deserve the compliment? The story doesn’t say. The point is that, good or bad, the words were wasted on the parishioner. For if everything Father said applied only to someone else, then nothing applied to her. So that, very likely, on that Sunday morning, she left the church in exactly the same state as when she arrived. Unchanged and unrepentant.
And this is precisely the kind of resistance to repentance that our Mass readings are warning us against today. They do this by inviting us to reflect upon a curious conversation between two mysterious plants. A barren tree and a burning bush. In the first reading, there is, of course, the obvious presence of a burning bush. But where is the barren tree? To answer this question, we need to recall what we know about Moses.
On the one hand, we cannot deny that, till this point, his life has been fruitful in several respects. He is a husband. And a father. And a shepherd. When we meet him in the first reading, he is busy doing what shepherds do. He is leading his father-in-law’s flock across the desert. And yet, busy and fruitful though it may be, Moses’ life is also, in a very important sense, barren. Barren because he has not yet begun to fulfil God’s plan for him. God wants him to shepherd not just his relative’s flock. But God’s own people. To set them free from slavery in Egypt. And to lead them, through the desert, to a new life in the Promised Land.
How does God effect this remarkable transformation in Moses? How does the keeper of sheep become a leader of Israel? How does the barren tree begin to bear God’s intended fruit? The process begins with an intense encounter. An intimate conversation between the barren tree and the burning bush. Between Moses and God. And it is only because Moses recognises the presence of God in the bush. It is only because he is willing to engage in this difficult dialogue. That he is finally transformed into the person he is called to be.
Of course, we may wonder what exactly was that burning bush that Moses encountered. Was it literally a plant engulfed in flame? Or is this just a metaphor for some other kind of experience? We can’t be sure. Perhaps it doesn’t matter. The point is that, literal or metaphorical, the experience was not wasted on Moses. Unlike that parishioner we mentioned earlier, however reluctant he may have been at first, Moses was willing finally to listen. He allowed God’s Word to change his life.
Contrast that with what we find in the gospel. Here, it is, of course, the barren tree that stands out. Jesus uses it as a metaphor for certain people of his day. People whose lives are barren. Probably not because they are 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 any of the other commandments. Very likely they do all these things quite well. They may even lead very busy lives. Lives that seem fruitful in various ways. And yet, like Moses, they remain, in a very important sense, barren. They have not yet begun to fulfil God’s plan for them. Not yet allowed themselves to be freed from their preoccupation with worldly concerns. To become a true light to the nations. Leading others into the freedom of God’s kingdom.
What’s even more serious than the barrenness is their blindness. Unlike Moses, they allow their busyness to prevent them from recognising God’s powerful presence in their lives. They fail to see the burning bush when they come across it as they journey through the desert of their lives. But where, we may ask, in the gospel, is this bush? To recognise it, we need to consider carefully what Jesus has to say about the public’s reaction to two disasters that occurred at that time. When Herod massacred a group of Galileans. And when a collapsing tower killed eighteen people at Siloam. People responded by saying that the victims were being punished for their own sins.
Rather than treating those disasters as burning bushes bearing important messages for themselves. Urgent wake-up calls addressed to them. Urging them to change their own way of life. People reacted to the disasters much like how that parishioner reacted to the priest’s homily. They saw them as targetted only at others. Those other people suffered because they were sinful. Which implies that we are spared because we are righteous. They needed to change. We do not. So the burning bush may go on burning. But we continue as we were. Unchanged and unrepentant.
I’m not sure, sisters and brothers, but I suspect that this kind of attitude is still quite common among us today. I confess to finding it in myself as well. Consider, for example, this hypothetical situation. I’m sure you’ve all heard about Madonna’s infamous concert at the Sports Hub tonight. What do you think would happen if, God forbid, some terrible disaster were to befall that event. It's not too difficult, is it, for us to imagine some Christians, even apparently devout Catholics, reacting to such a disaster by claiming that it is fitting punishment for a bunch of devil-worshippers?
But is Madonna really a devil-worshipper? Were the victims of the Galilean massacre, and those who died at Siloam indeed more sinful than everyone else? It’s unlikely that we’ll find conclusive evidence one way or the other. The point is that focusing only on them, on their sins, real or imagined, makes us resistant to change. Blinds us to the call of God. So that we end up wasting precious opportunities for repentance.
Consider what Jesus has to say in the gospel about those who died: Do you suppose that they were more guilty than all the other people living in Jerusalem? They were not, I tell you. No; but unless you repent you will all perish as they did. And consider what Paul writes, in the second reading, regarding the trials that the Israelites suffered in the desert. Paul emphasises that these things happened to them as warnings for us, not to have the wicked lusts for forbidden things that they had. For the man who thinks he is safe must be careful that he does not fall.
Conversations between barren trees and burning bushes. Transformations of preoccupied self-absorbed herders of sheep into passionate God-fearing leaders of nations. This is what we find in our Mass readings today. Conversation and transformation. Obedience and repentance. These are the things that God is offering us, on this 3rd Sunday in Lent. This is the urgent call addressed to us. Not to just to anyone else. But to us. To me. And to you.
Sisters and brothers, what must we do to listen and to change? To repent and to bear fruit today?