Third Sunday of Lent – C

Readings: Ex 3:1-8,13-15; Ps 103:1-4, 6-8, 11; 1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12; Lk 13:1-9


In our newspapers we read of disasters and watch catastrophes on television. And we deal with painful tragedies in the lives of our friends and loved ones, and ask: “Where is God?”, “How can God allow these things to go on?” It is implicitly the question put to Jesus in this Gospel account dealing with the fact that the Roman Governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate, the same one who condemned Jesus to be crucified, murdered a number of Jews in Jerusalem while they worshipped! He mingled their blood with the blood of their temple sacrifices. It was a terribly shocking thing to do, to say the least.

Some people explain away tragedies by telling us that it is sinners who suffer tragedies. Tragedies, they claim, are God’s way of punishing us for our sins, justified punishments from God inflicted upon us for our sins. That, of course, may or may not be true. Why? Because bad things happen to good people –people who are totally innocent suffer terrible tragedies. Jesus makes it crystal clear that personal suffering and personal sin are not always connected. To be sure, most sins bring their own punishment with them. You can think of a whole lot of diseases, pains and illnesses, both physical and mental, that result from behavior that is, shall we say, unhealthy, unnatural, and even bizarre. Still, personal suffering does hit the innocent.

The First Reading tells us how God shows his mercy to his chosen people by choosing Moses as their leader and liberator. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob (v. 6) reveals himself to Moses from the burning bush and assures Moses of his Divine presence with His people and of his awareness of their sufferings in Egypt. He declares his intention to use Moses as the leader who will rescue his enslaved people. Then God reveals his name as Yahweh (He who is) and renews his promise to the patriarchs (v. 8), to give them a “land flowing with milk and honey.”

The Second Reading warns us that our merciful God is also a disciplining God. Paul reminds the Christians of Corinth that they must learn from the sad experience of the Israelites who were punished for their sins by a merciful but just God. The merciful and gracious God is also just and demanding, and hence they must be free from sexual sins and idolatry.

Today’s Gospel explains how God disciplines his people, invites them to repent of their sins, to renew their lives and to produce the fruits of the Holy Spirit. Citing two tragic events, Jesus exhorts the Jews to repent and reform their lives. With the parable of the barren fig tree, he also warns them that the merciful God will not put up with them indefinitely. Although God patiently waits for sinners to repent, giving them grace to do so, he will not wait forever. Time may run out; therefore, timely repentance is necessary. Hence, a Lent missed is a year lost from the spiritual life.

Fig trees are supposed to provide figs, to produce the fruit that God made them to produce in the first place. And we, too, have been put on this earth to produce the results for which God gave us life in the first place to produce.

A little lesson in Palestinian horticulture: fig trees over there produce crops of figs three times each year. These trees are given every chance to produce; they receive a gardener’s care. Their owners have a right to expect them to produce, not to simply wave their pretty leaves in the air. When the master found this fig tree to be yielding nothing, he had every right, if not the duty, to eliminate that fig tree. All it was doing was soaking up water, minerals and other precious resources needed by the other trees to produce their fruit. This tree was good for nothing.

The response of the owner here in this parable was extra tenderness, extraordinary care, and a range of “second chances.” The owner allowed three seasons, nine chances, to be productive, before it was to be cut down. That fig tree was given no room in which to complain that it wasn’t given a chance to produce. What, then, about us? God has planted us in the midst of his love and grace. Our families and our friends have given us love, our schools have given us education, and our Church has given us God’s holy presence, love, and graces. God has offered us his tender, loving care in abundance. How have we responded? How will we respond? Will we just wave our pretty leaves in the air or will we feed the world’s hungry, care for the outcast, and be about the tasks of bringing order out of the injustices and chaos in the world around us?

Life does not always give us second chances. Some people pass away the first time they suffer a stroke, some are brought to the hospital the first time they meet an accident, while some are brought to jail the first time they break the law. However, Jesus is very different. We see him as a God of second chances. He gave a lot of people second chances – from giving Mary Magdalene a second chance to live a life pleasing to God, to giving Lazarus a second chance at life in itself when he raised him from the dead. God is very generous and very loving.

Here is a story told in his own words by a certain boy ….

“My name is Regan, from Iringa Region, Tanzania. My parents and family were followers of Jesus and taught me about him when I was very young. But as I grew up, I forgot all that I learned about Jesus Christ. I made friends with bad people and did many wrong things. When I was only 16, I spent my time with older people who were 18 to 25 years old, doing bad things. The older I became, the more I changed from doing good things to doing wrong. I became very cruel to people. In fact, I spoiled my life.

Many people tried to tell me to stop what I was doing. But I would not listen. I thought they were wasting their time. I stopped studying and at the same time, became infected with a bad illness. I spent almost six months in bed. One night I was near to death. I was afraid of dying. I called out to God to help me. I told him I was sorry for all the wrong things I had been doing. That night, God came to me in a vision and touched me. The next day I was completely well! From that day I started my studies again. I am so grateful to God because he has forgiven me and given me a second chance.”

God wants us to finish the story for ourselves. You have perhaps noticed that the parable of the fig tree had no real ending. It just sort of stopped and we don’t know what eventually happened to that fig tree. The same is true for you and me. God has given us life and launched us out into our world with a script to follow along with a director, Jesus, to guide us. But how our individual life stories are eventually written depends entirely on how we respond to what God has given us. A merciful God has spared us all, many times over, up to this present moment.

Of what use and just how fruitful will be the rest of your life . . . and mine? We have no idea what happened to the fig tree. We can have a pretty good idea about what will happen to us. Will we do nothing, or will we give God useful and productive lives spent in accomplishing his work? The responsibility rests upon us – not God.

Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.

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