This morning’s Gospel reading is Luke 13:1–9:
Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. Jesus said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did! Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them— do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”
And he told them this parable: “There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’ He said to him in reply, ‘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. If not you can cut it down.’”
Now that we’re fully in the season of Lent, most of us have grown accustomed to whatever sacrifice we’ve decided to make in penance for our sins. Over the years, I’ve given up a number of things for Lent, some more successfully than others. One year I thought I’d give up TV, which … didn’t last long. I’ve given up Twitter twice in the past before mostly giving it up altogether over the last few months, and that turned out to be more of a relief than a penance. Perhaps the most pain for me was giving up flavored coffee, which was bad enough; I knew I couldn’t give up coffee altogether, not unless I was prepared to retire altogether from blogging.
The point of these sacrifices is to make us feel the pain of loss in some measure as a reminder of our need to repent for our sins. Lent is our season to get in touch with the nature of sin and our attraction to it, and to feel the pain that causes the Lord and each other when we indulge in it. It is also to practice shedding those addictions to the material world which keeps us attached to sin. That doesn’t mean that flavored coffee is the root of all evil, of course, but that we need to step outside of these attachments to remind us that our purpose is to love God before all other things.
Twitter, on the other hand … well, never mind that for now.
Our readings today provide the tension and contrast between God’s mercy and justice for our sins. The first from Exodus demonstrates the Lord’s mercy toward His chosen people. He appears to Moses in the form of a burning bush and gives Moses the mission to free the Israelites from their cruel slavery to the Egyptians. “I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt,” God tells Moses, “so I know well what they are suffering.” He directs Moses to go call the Israelites out of slavery in order to provide them with their own land “flowing with milk and honey,” a land promised to Abraham by the Lord.
That was the merciful start to the Exodus and to the creation of what was intended to be a nation of prophets and priests that would teach the world the word of the Lord. As Paul reminds the Corinthians in our second reading, that didn’t go as well as the Lord hoped. Despite all in the Exodus marching with the Lord and being “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea,” many of them had their own ideas about life outside of Egypt. After rebellions, God sent them wandering in the desert for forty years to cull out the rebels and those attached to sin.
“These things happened as examples for us,” Paul writes, “so that we might not desire evil things, as they did.” Paul warns the Corinthians not to “grumble” but to embrace the will of the Lord. Merely being along for the ride isn’t good enough, Paul implicitly argues, even if we’re all sharing the “the same spiritual food, and … the same spiritual drink.” We must act with purpose to choose the Lord and to follow His word.
Jesus extends that argument in today’s Gospel. In the first part of this encounter, Jesus makes a point about the futility of arranging sin in hierarchies. People who die in sin suffer the same fate, He teaches, regardless of the sin. The wages of sin are death, and sin is a choice we make when we refuse to repent of it. “If you do not repent,” Jesus warns, “you will all perish as they did!”
The choice is ours as to whether we repent or not. The choice has always been ours. If we choose not to repent, then we are choosing instead to face God’s justice. However, in the very next breath, Jesus reminds us that we also have recourse to God’s mercy. The barren fig tree should be uprooted by the owner for exhausting the soil, Jesus says, but the gardener wants to keep working to make it fruitful. By working the ground around the tree, the gardener wants to give the tree another chance — an act of mercy beyond what one might reasonably expect.
There are more than a few ways to read this parable. My preferred interpretation is that the tree is Israel, Jesus is the gardener, and the rescue of the tree is Jesus’ current mission of mercy. It’s an attempt to rescue Israel by working around it rather than dealing with its barren infrastructure of temple authority. In this way, Jesus hopes to save it all.
In any interpretation, the point is that God’s merciful is bountiful to those who truly wish to repent and bear fruit. The Lord stands by to rescue us from slavery and lead us to salvation and our own home with Him, if we choose to embrace His word and detach themselves from sin and rebellion. He sent Moses to save the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, and Jesus came to save us from slavery to sin. All we need to do is to put down those chains, and our Lenten journey reminds us in small ways of how to do just that.
As for Twitter, well … #youknow.
The front page image is a detail from “Moses and the Burning Bush” by Giovanni Antonio Guardi, 18th century. Via Wikimedia Commons.
“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here. For previous Green Room entries, click here.