THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT (2019)
Exodus 3:1-8, 13-15
Psalm 103:1-4, 6-8, 11
1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12
When “bad things” happen to “good people” we often think as the Jewish people once thought, that God has to be punishing them for some sin committed by them or their ancestors. Good people are so undeserving of the bad things that come their way that we cannot fathom any rational explanation for their suffering, and so we put the blame on some past sin, and ultimately put the blame on a loving, but occasionally capricious, God. Such an explanation provides a simplistic answer to the imponderable age-old question, “why do good people suffer?”
But while God surely does have some oversight over the world that He created, God does not interfere with humanity’s free will, or with the natural workings of an extraordinarily complex world. In today’s gospel from the evangelist Luke, we hear Jesus correcting the thinking of the Jewish people who no doubt attributed Pilate’s murderous rampage in the Temple and the construction accident at Siloam to the supposed sinfulness of the victims. Jesus assures His listeners that those who died were not “greater sinners,” or “more guilty than everyone else.” Jesus refocuses the discussion, moving it away from the potential sinfulness of any victim, and moving it toward the missed opportunity of repentance. We might use the words of Paul to the Corinthians in our second reading to describe the two historical references of Jesus in the gospel: “these things happened to them as an example, and they have been written down as a warning to us, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore, who ever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.” Jesus’ parable of the fig tree, which follows Jesus’ historical references, enforces the importance of repentance, conversion, and the turning away from sin, making it a perfect parable for this third Sunday of the Lenten season.
Whether it is a fig, or any other type of fruit bearing tree, the expectation of the grower is that one day the tree will bear fruit. When the owner of the orchard in today’s gospel, after three years of patient searching for fruit, discovers that his tree still has not born any figs, he orders his gardener to “cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?” But the gardener, with God-like patience, begs for another year to “cultivate the ground and fertilize it” so that “it may bear fruit in the future.” If it still does not bear figs, then, and only then, can “it be cut down.”
We are that fig tree in today’s gospel, planted in the orchard of the Lord, and we are expected to bear fruit, the fruits of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, humility, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, forgiveness, and self-control (Galatians 5). When those fruits are absent, there is sin, and there is the need for the cultivation of repentance. Like the gardener in the gospel, God gives us endless opportunities to turn away from sin and selfishness, and this Lenten season is a particular opportunity to increase our efforts to cooperate with the grace which flows to us from a loving God that we might produce the fruit of the Spirit. As the Psalmist says in today’s psalm response, God pardons all our iniquities, heals all our ills, redeems our life from destruction, and crowns us with love and compassion. Our God is, indeed, “kind and merciful,” and He patiently waits for us to turn away from sin and selfishness, and produce the good fruit intended from the beginning of time.