Lent 3 “C”
February 18, 2016 by
David Jackson in
Reflections on Sunday Gospels
Introduction: There is much to reflect on in this Sunday’s readings. The first reading has the “burning bush” experience of Moses and Moses’ call. The second reading reminds us that the signs given to the People in their Exodus experience didn’t touch some Israelites. The same thing can happen to us. In the Gospel we hear three different stories: one about Pilate, one about a tower, and one about a fig tree. The first two caution hearers to repent or perish. The last tells us to bear fruit or perish. But this story also reveals something of the mercy of God.
PILATE. Jesus is told of a political disaster. The tellers expect him to answer with sympathy and denunciation of Pilate. Instead Jesus challenges their supposition that there is a connection between sin and suffering. He turns the attention away from criticism of the hated enemy and turns it into painful criticism of the tellers. He confronts them: there are evil forces at work in their movement that will destroy them if they do not repent.
TOWER. Jesus further turns the attention away from the hated enemy by recalling a natural disaster, an Act of God. It is possible that the tower was part of an aqueduct project that Pilate was engaged in. People suffer not just from political oppression. Jesus again challenges their supposition that there is a connection between the destruction suffered and the sin committed. (Luke Timothy Johnson in his recent book, The Revelatory Body, takes a tour through scripture in his chapter on “the body and pain.” He illustrates in detail that the traditional belief, found in the Old Testament, was that all disasters and diseases are punishment from God for sin. As this passage (and others) illustrate Jesus corrects this view.) In a refrain Jesus tells them and us: Repent of your sins or you will perish. He does not say, repent or you will suffer.
FIG TREE. It is in a vineyard, does not produce fruit, takes up space and drains strength out of the ground. The owner and vine dresser have cooperated in the planting. The owner outlines the problem and offers one solution: cut it down, judgement. Jesus listeners would probably recall the vineyard mentioned in Isaiah 5. There a disappointed vineyard owner does not find a good crop. He passes immediate judgement: remove the hedge, break down its wall, make it a waste and command the clouds that they rain no rain on it. But here the vine dresser evaluates the problem and suggests a hoped for solution. Mercy. He wants a one year period of grace, let it alone, forgive it. He will give it special attention, renewing grace (hoe and manure). The salvation for the tree comes exclusively from outside. Renewal cannot come from within the resources of the tree itself. It cannot gather the strength it needs from its own roots. The vine dresser must act to save the tree and at the same time the tree must respond to these acts or they are of no avail. We don’t know the outcome.
Jesus likewise calls us this third Sunday of Lent to read the signs. We must read the signs of our own lives, the signs of calls to conversion that God is giving us, the signs of our own times, of our own lives. Maybe today, at this Mass, during this Lent, God is trying to give me and you a “burning bush” experience. He is also teaching us clearly: “don’t attribute suffering to sinfulness.” Do hear the words, “repent or perish.” Lent for us is a period of grace. Jesus wishes to give us saving and renewing graces. The fig tree of itself, depending on its own resources, was powerless. Yet the vine dresser offered a period of grace and renewing graces, (hoeing which disturbs the ground and manuring). (Some one has said, “some times we need to be shit upon to grow.” Note may not be appropriate for your church.) What we can’t do of our own resources, God as the vine dresser can do. Remember also that God is a pruner. Like the fig tree, we must respond or those acts of God are of no avail.