THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT (2022)
Exodus 3:1-8, 13-15
Psalms 103:1-4, 6-8, 11
1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12
When making one’s way around the squares of a Monopoly Board, the American Version, one felt a certain comfort if you were in possession of a “Get Out of Jail Free Card.” Winning the game was not just a matter of acquiring streets in the high rent districts and building homes and hotels, it was also a matter of staying out of jail, where, until you rolled doubles, some house rules would not even allow you to collect rent. The “get out of jail free card” somehow manages to mimic, real life, where, if we could, we would take a pass on hardship and difficulty, on sickness and death, if there were such a pass.
It appears in the opening of today’s gospel from Luke, that people were just sitting around talking with Jesus when they mentioned a story (told only by Luke, but confirmed by Jewish historian Josephus) about Pilate’s slaughter of people who were doing nothing more than offering their own sacrifices to God. The story is important for it gives Jesus the opportunity to speak about a prevailing understanding of the people at the time of Jesus, i.e. that suffering or hardship in this life was the direct outcome of having sinned, or, at the very least, one of your long forgotten relatives having sinned. Jesus debunks the theory immediately: “Do you think that because the Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means!” Jesus even brings up another story, for which we have no corroboration, about eighteen people dying when the “tower at Siloam fell on them.” Jesus asks His listeners: “Do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means!”
The remainder of Jesus’ ministry will make it clear that no one holds a “get out of jail free card,” not the Pharisees, not the Sadducees, not the so-called ‘religious’ people, no one can bypass repentance, no one can avoid facing their own shortcomings. Sickness and death is visited upon all people equally, and it has less to do with how much a person has sinned, and more to do with whether they have a contrite heart. From Abraham down to the present day, the Lord God has used flawed people to accomplish God’s goals. Paul in our second reading, from his first letter to the Corinthians, points to the challenges that the Jewish people faced after they left Egypt, and states that those challenges were meant to be “examples for us, so that we might not desire evil things, as they did.” Indeed, the whole of salvation history is replete with examples of men and women whose lives demonstrate that “the Lord is kind and merciful” toward “those who fear Him,” who walk in God’s ways. In the gospel Jesus reminds His listeners that “if they do not repent, they will all perish” like Pilate’s victims or those killed by the tower at Siloam.
Jesus brings the point home, as He so often does, by telling a parable about a fig tree. It was one of many trees in the owner’s orchard, and the owner had come often to that tree in search of figs over the course of three years (the length of Jesus’ public ministry). Never finding any figs, the owner instructs the gardener to cut it down, “why should it exhaust the soil?” But the gardener sees in the fig tree a real chance that it could bear fruit. In spite of its poor performance, the gardener recognizes potential in the tree, and requests a year’s respite in which to cultivate and fertilize the tree, “it may bear fruit in the future.” If the tree still persists in not bearing fruit, he will cut it down. There will be no “get out of jail free card” after a year!
At the beginning of our oldest gospel, the Gospel of Mark, Jesus states the message He is meant to bring succinctly: “Repent, and believe in the gospel.” Repentance is necessary before we can truly believe in the gospel, before we can bear the kind of fruit we are meant to bear. We will get no pass by going to church every Sunday, by fingering our rosaries, or sitting in front of the blessed sacrament. We need to repent (the message of this season of Lent), we need to have a change of heart and recognize our need for forgiveness. Yes, we sin in varying degrees, but like the fig tree we all have the potential to bear fruit in due season, if we cultivate our hearts to be good listeners, if we till the soil of our hearts with good works. Let Jesus be the gardener in today’s gospel, and let Him see in us the potential to bear fruit in abundance. With the psalmist we proclaim: “Merciful and gracious is the Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so surpassing is his kindness toward those who fear him.”