3rd Sunday of Lent (Year C)
First Reading: Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15 Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12 Gospel Reading: Luke 13:1-9
“THE LORD IS LOVING, COMPASSIONATE, KIND AND MERCIUL”
The story is told of a young corporate executive named Bill who gave in to temptation and was discovered as being guilty of embezzlement. He was called into the office of the company president. He feared the worst.
Mr. Johnson asked, “Bill, did you do it?” Bill ducked his head in embarrassment and muttered, “Yes, sir.”
Mr. Johnson continued, “You made a bad decision. I know that you realize it. You are the second one in this room who made a bad choice. Thirty years ago I did the same thing you did, and a very kind and forgiving man gave me another chance. I'm going to give you the mercy and grace that I received that day. Now get to work.” Hearing this, Bill was stunned. Quitely, he left the office laden with gratitude and unforgetable relief.
In a similar way, God gives to us what we do not deserve. Whenever we commit sins, He forgives us and gives us another chance, for “The Lord is loving, compassionate, kind and merciful.”
We are in the Holy Season of Lent and today is its 3rd Sunday. The Scripture Readings today underline our need for repentance on one hand and hearten us with the reality of a patient, kind, compassionate and merciful God on the other. As our Lenten preparation proceeds and our anticipation of Easter heightens, so also must our efforts increase at daily conversion. Today, therefore, we are called to come to God with a repentant heart and experience His generous love and abounding mercy. He is not far from us; He is not hiding from us, but is eagerly waiting for us always.
In the First Reading of today from the Book of Exodus, we hear about the story of the burning bush, which is one of the most poignant events recorded in the Hebrew Scripture. Moses’ encounter with God over the bush that was on fire but not consumed represented a turning point in his life. From that time onward, he recognized God’s call, turned toward Him in a thoroughgoing conversion and thereafter lived accordingly.
This is also one of the most significant occasions and a very dramatic scene of God's Self-revelation in the Old Testament, identifying Himself with the God of his fathers - “the God of Abraham, the God of Issac, the God of Jacob” on one hand, and as “a loving, compassionate, kind and merciful God” on the other, who knows well of Israel’s suffering, who is deeply concerned about His people and who really cares for them. When calamity struck the Israelite people such as the 400 years of slavery in Egypt, they saw that as being the consequence of their persisting unfaithfulness to God. As we hear in today's reading, because God is patient and merciful, He gives them another chance - “I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry of complaint against their slavery, so I know well what they are suffering. Therefore, I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land flowing with milk and honey.” The Israelites were not just any people; they were God’s Chosen People. And God's response is not to blame them for sinning, but to come down and rescue them from the Egyptians and lead them to a land flowing with milk and honey.
God then directs Moses to liberate the Israelite people from Egypt. He is also told that he is the one to deliver this message to Pharaoh. Moses is stunned: “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” Although God assures Moses that He will always be with him, Moses wants God to provide an identity more specific than 'the God of the ancestors.' God’s enigmatic and confusing response says everything and says nothing: “I AM WHO I AM.” By revealing this divine name, God is not saying that He just exists, but that He is always, and will be with His people always. The call of Moses takes place at the Mountain of Horeb (another name for Sinai), where God’s covenant with the liberated people will later be solemnized – calling them to bring to the whole world the good news of God’s generous and merciful ways. It is God's initiative to come down and ask Moses to be his servant in delivering the people from slavery into freedom; from sin into faithfulness. God deals with us today in the same way He dealt with the Israelite people in the Old Testament when they strayed and became unfaithful.
Today’s Gospel Reading according to St. Luke begins with two warnings about the need for repentance and ends with a parable about a non-productive fig tree and a kind, merciful & patient vine-dresser. The warnings include two examples of untimely deaths, one reported to Jesus and then used by him to illustrate the urgent need for repentance, the other reported by Jesus himself as a further illustration of his point. They are - the first, the uprising of some Galileans which Pilate repressed with bloodshed and the second, the fall of the tower in Siloam which claimed 18 victims. Two very distinct, tragic events: one caused by man, the other accidental.
Now, according to the mentality of the time, people made a link between suffering and sin. Therefore, they were inclined to think that the disgrace which struck the victims was due to some grave fault of their own and that God must have allowed it because they were so sinful. Without correcting the popular, but erroneous, notion that tragedy was a deserved punishment for sin, Jesus warned his listeners against comparing themselves with others, and of growing lax concerning their own need for reform. For Jesus sin is a tragedy, but tragedy is not a sin. This then is the point to which Jesus wants to bring his listeners: the need for repentance & the necessity for conversion. He does not propose it in legalistic terms, but rather in a very realistic way as the only adequate response to the events that place human certainties in crisis.
After giving a clear warning on the consequences of sin, Jesus then turns around and tells a dramatic parable about a barren fig tree that wasn't productive for three years. A well-known symbol for Israel, the fig tree provided both fruit and shade for humanity, and a place for birds to nest. After planting, the fig tree was expected to produce fruit after three years. If it did not, it was cut down and replaced with another. In Jesus’ parable, the owner of the vineyard wanted to get rid of the non-fruiting fig tree. His position is perfectly reasonable - Why should a non-fruiting fig-tree continue to sap the goodness of the soil? Why not go for more vines, more grapes, more wine, and forget about the non-fruiting fig tree? But the way the gardener pleads with the owner portrays a patient, loving and compassionate God who gives a second chance and opportunity for the unproductive fig tree to grow - “Sir leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future.”
Through this parable, Jesus primarily implied that the Divine vine-dresser was about to come in search of fruit in Israel. Would there be any to be found? Like the non-fruiting fig tree left to grow for yet another year, Israel had been given one final chance and opportunity to bear good fruits as evidence of its repentance. Yes surely, “God is loving, compassionate, kind and merciful,” but one day He will hold us accountable for our lives, our behavior. Those who choose to ignore these will find themselves liable to the same fate as the barren fig tree.
In the Second Reading of today, in his First Letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul speaks of Israel’s history which was spent in the wilderness en route to Canaan, the promised land. He compares the Hebrew exodus experience to our baptismal experience. He says that God’s saving deeds in the Exodus are a prelude and foreshadowing of our own Baptism by water, our liberation from sin, our feeding with spiritual food & drink and our journey to the new promised land, viz. heaven.
Yet the events of the Exodus are also given as a 'warning' - that merely being the children of Abraham is by no means a guarantee that we will certainly reach the promised land of our salvation. Despite all the spiritual blessings they received, the Israelite people ultimately displeased God through their grumbling and unfaithfulness - “they failed to please God and their corpses littered the desert.”
St. Paul therefore suggests that followers of Jesus Christ would do well to learn from the mistakes of their ancestors in the faith they have embraced, so as not to fall into the same pattern themselves. God gives us gifts as He always has manna and water in the desert for the Hebrews and the Eucharist for us. But just because we have God’s gifts, i.e. His grace, we needn't be complacent. We still have to bear fruit; we still have to be vigilant; we still have to turn ourselves around from sinning. At any moment, we could perish—not as God’s punishment for being 'greater sinners' - but because, like the Israelites in the wilderness, we stumble into evil desires, fall into grumbling and forget all His benefits.
Conversion to Christ and baptism into the community of the Church requires continual effort in order to keep from backsliding into old habits or taking a detour into the alluring ways of the pagan or occult. Moreover, the process of daily conversion should include a sense of gratitude for the gifts with which God guides our way.
So, what is the message for us today? What do the Scripture Readings teach us?
Firstly, the Holy season of Lent should be for us like the season of reprieve given to the fig tree, a grace period in which we let 'The Gardener,' Christ, cultivate our hearts, uprooting what chokes the divine life in us, strengthening us to bear fruits that will last into eternity.
Secondly, Lent sounds a serious warning on the consequences of living in sin. Repentance is an urgent message that cannot be put off, and one that must be heard this very day. Jesus calls us today to 'repentance' — not a one-time change of heart, but an ongoing, daily transformation of our lives.
And finally, let us bear in mind that “GOD IS LOVING, COMPASSIONATE, KIND AND MERCIFUL.” So, let us come to Him joyfully singing His praises and offer Him always our thanksgiving for His bountiful love and abounding mercy. And this is the Good News of today.