March 3, 2013 - Third Sunday of Lent
Ex 3:1-8A, 13-15; 1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12; Lk 13:1-9
The Old Testament reading from the Book of Exodus assigned for this Sunday is one of the most famous passages in all of the Scriptures. Moses, who in previous chapters of the Exodus story, had been raised by a Pharaoh's daughter and enjoyed a life of privilege in the royal court, had abruptly fallen out of favor when in a fit of anger he had killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew slave. Fearing for his life, Moses had fled to the eastern region of Egypt and, as the dramatic encounter in this Sunday's reading is about to begin, is tending sheep in the desert area of Midian. Suddenly Moses sees the amazing sight of a burning bush with an angel of God appearing to him at the same time. When he draws closer to this astounding sight, he has an encounter with the living God! God calls Moses by name and tells him to take off his shoes because he is standing on "holy ground." God tells the startled shepherd that he has seen the affliction of "my people" and knows they are suffering oppression. God goes on to commission Moses to be the one who, on God's behalf, will lead the people to freedom. [The account of Moses' great hesitations about this task - Who will listen to me? I stutter and have no eloquence! - will be played out in the next few chapters of Exodus.]
Besides this affirmation of God's tender care for his people and his desire to free them from their suffering, this passage is key because it also reveals the name of God. Moses draws this from his divine partner when he asks what he is to say to his fellow Israelites when they ask, "What is his name?" God had already introduced himself to Moses as "I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob." This God who has sustained the people through the generations of their ancestors will not abandon his people now that they are in terrible suffering. Then God reveals his true name: "Yahweh" that is, "I am who am." The precise connotation of this mysterious name, "I am," has been a source of speculation for centuries. The most likely meaning is that the transcendent God, in whom all reality finds its source and meaning, is also the one who is eternally present to his people, accompanying them, caring for them, responsive to their needs.
It is this divine name that no observant Jew would ever dare enunciate, out of reverence for God. In fact, the same has been true for Christian tradition - the divine name is never directly used in the New Testament nor in early Christian Eucharistic prayers. Instead, as Judaism itself does, when the divine name appears in the biblical text, the reader will use the euphemism, "my Lord" (kurios in Greek).
Thus this first reading lays down key convictions of the Bible - God, who is transcendent and mysterious, is also tender and merciful, not indifferent but caring about the sufferings of his people and desiring their liberation from oppression. This conviction is one of the very foundations of our Judeo-Christian heritage. It is this fundamental conviction that the Psalm response for this Sunday picks up: "The Lord is kind and merciful".
The second reading from Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians and the Gospel reading about the parable of the fig tree form Luke's Gospel remind us of another dimension of our relationship with God. In their desert sojourn on the way to the land of milk and honey, the Israelites not only learned God's name and were protected and fed by God (the beautiful story of their rations of manna and quail in the desert!), but they also failed miserably to respond properly to God. The Exodus is filled with stories of the Israelites complaining about the food ("longing for the leeks and onions of Egypt") and their leadership (driving Moses nearly mad), as well as rebelling against God and doubting his promises to them. They often failed to realize that God's love was sustaining and nourishing them. Love freely given calls for love in return.
The intriguing parable in Luke's Gospel makes a similar point but in a very different mode. The householder who has a fig tree in his garden has been caring for this fig tree for three years and it still has not produced any fruit. Fed up he orders his gardener to cut it down since it seems to be good for nothing but using up good soil. But the gardener argues for some patience-in the meantime, he will cultivate the ground around the tree and fertilize it. If it still does not produce any fruit then he agrees to cut it down. It doesn't take a genius to figure out the meaning of this parable: the gardener (is this God? Or Christ?) is patient and wants the tree to survive and bear fruit. But time is running out and the tree (us!) better start producing some fruit!
Combined, these biblical passages we hear this Sunday have a strong Lenten theme. Lent, we know, is a time of renewal for us as followers of Jesus. We prepare for the celebration of the death and resurrection of Christ - the very basis for our Christian hope. The God of the Bible is a God of extraordinary mercy - as one author put it, a God of awesome mystery and infinite tenderness. Jesus himself is the ultimate expression of God's love for us - a word of love expressed in Jesus' healings, his words of forgiveness and mercy, his outreach to those in need - but, above all, in the intense love that led him to give his life for us. That act of love is not in vain; God's love overcomes even death, just as the God of Exodus led the Israelites from slavery and death to freedom and new life.
But we are prompted to respond: to lead lives worthy of God's love, to commit our lives to acts of mercy and justice, to respond to the free gift of God's love for us with gratitude and love on our part. Like our ancestors in the desert, none of us responds perfectly to God's abundant love for us. Now - this Lent - is an opportunity to intensify our efforts to live as daughters and sons of the God who loves us more than we can imagine.
Donald Senior, C.P.
President, Professor of New Testament Studies
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