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


Is the God you believe in, a coach or a referee? What does a coach do, for instance, in the context of football? He trains his team before the match. He is there during the struggle of his team. He may not play the game, but he encourages, gives directions. He may shout at the players, but only for their own good. Generally, the coach is concerned with the quality of the game and how well individuals and the team have played it.

On the other hand, the referee expects you to know the rules of the game and just to obey. He is not concerned with the results of the game. For him, a good team is that which has obeyed the rules – blindly.

Do you feel your God is a referee who just wants you to obey rules? Does he blow a whistle on your attempts to enjoy life? Does he produce a yellow card when he is fed up, and does he show you a red card when things have gone out of control, in an attempt to keep you out of the game?

How do I relate to God? As to a referee – with fear, hiding, arguing, constantly defending myself? Or as to a coach, ready to learn, with respect and admiration, yes, to obey him because it is good for me, it is good for the team!

The image of God that emerges in the Liturgy of the Word on this 3rd Sunday of Lent is one of a ‘coach’. (We know we are talking about God here in an analogical sense, in fact, as we always do.) Just as God called Moses and walked by his side training him to be a great leader (1st reading of today), and just as God guided the people of Israel in the form of fire by night and cloud by day (2nd reading of today), God walks with us as a mentor.

In the Gospel of today, we see Jesus on this Lukan grand journey to Jerusalem – a journey that he started soon after the experience of transfiguration (Lk 9:51; the gospel reading of last Sunday), he will reach Jerusalem only by Chapter 19 of Luke, and a journey that will culminate with his death and resurrection. On this journey, Jesus is told about a cruel happening in Jerusalem: Pilate had killed some of the Galileans who were offering sacrifice there. Jesus uses this occasion to make a point about the nature of God – His father – and about our own response to Him.

There are, at least, two meaningful insights about God that come out from the gospel of this Sunday:

(a) Our suffering is not a result of our sins, though suffering could be pedagogical, that is, it teaches us something about human nature.
(b) And despite our own failures and indifference, God always offers us a second chance.

What can we learn from human suffering?

One easy way of explaining the problem of evil and the question of why human suffering, is to attribute it to our own sins. But how do we explain that when an innocent person suffers? Hinduism and Buddhism try to attribute it to the sins of the same person in the previous birth. Clever! Early Judaism attributed the suffering of innocent person to the sins of their forefathers. But already in the later parts of the Old Testament, this is questioned: as in the book of Job and in some parts of the prophets. For instance, in prophet Jeremiah, the Lord God says: “In those days people will no longer say: “The fathers have eaten unripe grapes; the children’s teeth are set on edge” (Jer 31:29; also Eze 18:2). This has been the consistent message of Jesus and Christianity. To me, trying to find a rational cause of human suffering is an expression of pride and an inability to accept the mystery of our human condition. Often, the spontaneous reaction to suffering is, why? Why me? This ‘why’, is not looking for a rational answer, but just a sense of wonder at the mystery of life itself.

In any case, Jesus often refers to suffering as pedagogical, that we can learn something from it – not necessarily the one who suffers but even those who witness it (See, Jn 9:1-3), and share in it. And in the gospel of today, Jesus says (Lk 13:2-3): “Do you suppose that these Galileans were worse sinners than any others that this [calamity] should have happened to them? They were not, I tell you. No; but unless you repent you will all perish as they did.” In other words, Jesus is saying human suffering and death, makes us aware of our own frail nature, our shortness of life, and our creaturely-ness. And this awareness invites us to live more meaningful lives. On the other hand…

God is ready to offer us a second chance!

I remember, learning to use the computer in the 1980’s. Those were the days when we worked with DOS (Disk Operating System), we did not yet have access to the Windows. One day, I made a mistake of deleting the contents of a whole hard disk, and didn’t know how to ‘Undo’, causing such a havoc to our school computer department that was only in its infancy; moreover, the computer I was working on was the only one with a hard disk! Those of us who work with computers these days, I am sure, appreciate the ‘Undo’ icon, which offers us a possibility to reverse the consequences of our own decisions and actions – at least to some extent.

Today’s gospel tells us that God, in his infinite goodness, offers us that possibility: to reverse the consequences of our previous decisions. God offers a second chance. The farmer, in today’s gospel, goes to his fig-tree to find some fruits but there is nothing yet. This is the third year that he has done this. Some scripture scholars think that this reference to ‘three years’ (Lk 13:7) might refer to Jesus’ years of public ministry and his visit to Jerusalem these years (Jn 9:3). But the owner of the vineyard is ready to wait one more year. Meanwhile he is going to offer better opportunity to the tree by digging round it and providing manure. Yes, God is patient to wait one more year. He has given us one more season of Lent. How do we want to respond to this?

Allow me to conclude with a poem attributed to Kathleen Wheeler:

He came to my desk with quivering lip –
The lesson was done.
“Dear teacher, I want a new leaf,” he said,
“I have spoiled this one.”
I took the old leaf, stained and blotted,
And gave him a new one, all unspotted,
And into his sad eyes smiled:
“Do better now, my child.”

I went to the Throne with a quivering soul –
The old year was done.
“Dear Father, has thou a new leaf for me?
I have spoiled this one.”
He took the old leaf, stained and blotted,
And gave me a new one, all unspotted,
And into my sad heart smiled:
“Do better now, my child.”

Fr. Franco Pereira, S.D.B.

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