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Reflections for the III Sunday of Lent

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the third Sunday in Lent. He says that the readings invite us to repent of our sins and to renew our lives by producing fruits of love, compassion, forgiveness, and faithful service.

Ex 3:1-8a, 13-15; I Cor 10:1-6, 10-12; Lk 13:1-9

Central theme All three of today's readings speak of God’s mercy and compassion in disciplining His children with occasional punishment while giving them another chance despite their repeated sins.  Although God’s love for us is constant and consistent, He will not save us without our co-operation.  That is why He invites us during Lent to repent of our sins and to renew our lives by producing fruits of love, compassion, forgiveness, and faithful service.

Homily starter anecdote: Natural tragedies: We have experienced devastating natural tragedies as earthquakes in Haiti and Chile in 2010 and as Hurricane Katrina in the U.S. in 2005. The earthquake in Haiti occurred at 4:PM on January 12th. It was less strong but more devastating than the one in Chile. The earthquake in Haiti killed 230,000 people, injured 300,000 and left a million people homeless as it destroyed 250,000 residences and 30,000 commercial buildings.  The earthquake in Chile occurred at 3:34 AM on February 27th; it measured 8.8 on the Richter scale, killed 279 people, damaged 500,000 homes in six cities and caused 8.5’ tsunami flooding nearby islands and coastal areas.  Hurricane Katrina occurring in the U. S in late August 2005, was the costliest hurricane and the greatest natural disaster in the history of the United States. At least 1,836 people lost their lives in the actual hurricane and in the subsequent floods.  The storm caused severe destruction along the Gulf Coast from central Florida to Texas, much of it due to the storm surge. The most severe loss of life and damages to property occurred in New Orleans, Louisiana. Flood waters inundated 80% of the city and covered large tracts of neighboring parishes remaining in place for weeks. Hurricane Katrina caused damages totaling $100 billion, outstripping by many times the damage caused by Hurricane Andrew in 1992 (Adapted from Wikipedia). Citing two tragic local incidents in today’s Gospel, Jesus exhorts the Jews to repent of their sins and reform their lives so that they may not face the greatest human tragedy -- eternal damnation.  Such natural tragedies also show us our human limitations, demonstrated in our inability to understand why a merciful God allows such tragic events to occur. Are they His means of disciplining His children?(

Scripture readings summarized: The first reading tells us how God shows His mercy to His chosen people by giving them 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 of using Moses as the leader who will rescue His enslaved people.  Then He renews the promise He made to the patriarchs (v 8), to give them a “land flowing with milk and honey.”  In the Responsorial Psalm (Ps 103) the Psalmist reminds us of God’s mercy: "He pardons all your iniquities; He heals all your ills. He redeems your life from destruction; He crowns you with kindness and compassion…. “Merciful and gracious is the Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness.”     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 one can say, “A Lent missed is a year lost from the spiritual life.”

The first reading: Ex. 3:1-8, 13-15, explained: This reading explains how God, speaking from a burning bush, called Moses to leave the tending of his father-in-law’s flock for a challenging role as liberator of God’s Chosen People.  Moses was to free the Israelites from their enslavement by Egyptian rulers who were systematically persecuting and exterminating them.  The reading contains the call of Moses, the greatest Jewish liberator and law-bringer, and the explanation of God's proper name: Yahweh.  God not only trusts Moses enough to share His Name with him, but He also explains what it means.  "I AM Who AM," Yahweh proclaims.  "This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you."  YHWH (without vowels, as it is written in Hebrew), means "I am Who am" (St. Jerome, Vulgate) or “I am He Who is” (Septuagint) or "I am Who cause to be" (modern Bible scholars).  God also insists He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, Israel's ancestors, in order to prepare the freed slaves to reclaim their noble heritage.  This reading is appropriate for Lent, because it begins the story that will reach its climax so dramatically on Holy Saturday with the reading which explains how Moses finally led the Israelites out of Egypt.  Though God's salvation is always available, only those willing to change their core lives ever notice it.  Repentance is the first step in our redemption.  That is why Jesus gives the strong warning in today’s Gospel, "If you do not repent, you will all perish."  We are called to abandon our false gods of money, power and pleasure and return to the one God, who “secures justice and the rights of all the oppressed.”

The second reading: I Cor 10:1-6, 10-12, explained: The second reading is Paul's commentary on today's first reading.  Paul warns the Christians of Corinth that they must avoid overconfidence and learn from the experience of the Israelites, in order not to repeat their mistakes.  Referring to the golden calf episode and the judgment that befell the Israelites in the wilderness (10:7-11), Paul offers words of admonition (10:12), assurance (10:13) and warning that God’s mercy has its limits.  The Israelites, led by Moses, passed miraculously through the sea as they escaped from Egypt.  God led them across the desert by means of a cloud and gave them water from the rock when they were thirsty and delicious manna as their staple food.  Despite all these wonders, however, many were still faithless.  Therefore, God let them die in the desert without reaching the Promised Land.  Paul sternly warns the Corinthians that they are in the same danger, “Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care lest he fall." Paul exhorts his converts to be faithful and not to presume that membership in the Christian community automatically saves them.  Later in his epistle Paul speaks of repentance, using the Greek word metanoia, which means “a decision which changes the direction of a person’s life or behavior.”

Gospel exegesis: 1) Tragedy of Divine warning and disciplining: Jesus uses two local tragedies to teach us about our need for repentance and a renewal of life.  The slaughter of the Galileans by Pilate, recorded in today's Gospel reading, is unknown outside Luke's Gospel.  But the Jewish historian Josephus reports how Pilate disrupted a religious gathering of Samaritans on Mt. Gerizim with the slaughter of the participants.  On another occasion, Pilate killed many Galilean Jews who protested when he appropriated money from the Temple treasury to build an aqueduct in Jerusalem in order to obtain a better water supply for the pilgrims.  But Luke presents these two real incidents as one tragedy, which occurred in the Temple premises.  Even though it was Pilate who commanded the atrocity to be carried out, the natural assumption at the time was to think that the victims were particularly guilty and must have somehow “deserved” it. Some Bible scholars think that Jesus is simply predicting the foreseeable political and military consequences of not embracing Jesus’ call to “Kingdom ethics”—love, forgiveness and non-retaliation.

2) The tragedy at the aqueduct: Jesus proceeds to connect his warning to another episode, namely, what appears to have been an accident related to the renovation work on the control tower of the water supply scheme at Siloam, in which eighteen people died.  The Jews interpreted this tragedy as God’s punishment of the workers who had co-operated with Pilate in his sacrilegious aqueduct project.  Jesus denies that either the Galileans or the eighteen people suffered because of their sins, but he calls his listeners to repent lest they suffer for theirs.  In fact, Jesus presents both these incidents as timely reminders of the need for all to repent, saying, "… unless you repent you will all likewise perish."  Repentance is given major emphasis in Luke’s Gospel (3:3; 3:8; 5:32; 13:3, 5; 15:7; 16:30; 17:3; 24:47).  The call to repent of one’s sins always includes the threat of Divine retribution if one does not repent and the promise of forgiveness if one does. By citing two tragic events, Jesus warns his listeners not to spend their time speculating about the guilt of others, but to concentrate on examining their own lives, and their own need for repentance and forgiveness.

3) Sin and tragedies: We know that tragic events can occur randomly, as in the cases of the Galileans and the eighteen Jerusalemites and have nothing to do with the guilt or innocence of the victims.  For example, a tornado that destroys a nightclub also destroys a Church.  An earthquake or tsunami kills the saints as well as the sinners in the affected area. Drunk drivers kill innocent people. Ride-by shooters kill children and other innocent bystanders. Religious fanatics, terrorists and suicide bombers cause the untimely deaths of good as well as of bad people.  Violent people, with or without provocation, injure their loved ones.  Only a few of us will have a burning-bush experience, but all of us have struggled to understand why tragedy seems to befall innocent people. In all these cases, we need to trust in Divine mercy, believing that God is with us and God is on our side, even in those situations we cannot explain.  Jesus' life is the clearest evidence that a person's suffering is not proof of that person's sin.  While sin can lead to tragedy, not every tragedy is the result of sin.

2) The Jewish concept of repentance at Jesus’ time: Teshuvá was the key concept in the rabbinic view of sin, repentance, and forgiveness.  The Jewish rabbis taught that repentance required five elements: recognition of one's sin as sin; remorse for having committed the sin; desisting from repeating this sin; restitution for the damage done by the sin where possible; and confession.  “Confession" for the Jews had two forms: ritual and personal.  Ritual confession required recitation of the liturgies of confession at their proper moments in the prayer life of the community.  Personal confession required individual confession before God as needed or inserting one's personal confession into the liturgy at designated moments.  One who followed these steps to teshuvá was called a "penitent."  In fact, Jesus invited his Jewish listeners to such repentance.  “Repent” (Greek, metanoia), implies not just regret for the past but a radical conversion and a complete change in our way of life as we respond and open ourselves to the love of God.  Repentance, or a turning away from one path to another, is not so much finding God as being found by God.  Jesus calls us today to “repentance” - not a one-time change of heart, but an ongoing, daily transformation of our lives.

3) A parable of Divine patience: On the one hand, Jesus informs us that those who do not repent will perish.  On the other hand, Jesus tells us a parable about the patience of God. The fig tree in His parable is a familiar Old Testament symbol for Israel (see Jeremiah 8:3; 24:1-10, Hosea 9:10; Micah 7:1). As the fig tree is given one last season to produce fruit before it is cut down, so Jesus is giving Israel one final opportunity to bear good fruits as evidence of its repentance (see Luke 3:8).  This metaphorical story of the fig tree planted in the vineyard reminds us of the parable of the vineyard in Isaiah 5:1-7.  The fig tree is considered as a symbol of the People of Israel (see also Hosea 9:10; Micah 7:1; Jeremiah 8:13, 24:1-10), and this parable is perhaps meant to indicate that Jesus will work on the Jews for a little while longer, before cutting them off as a lost case and opening the Kingdom wholeheartedly to the Gentiles.  Through this parable, believers are reminded of the patience of a God, who is willing to give sinners chance after chance to reform their lives and to seek reconciliation.  Even when sinners waste or refuse those chances, God, in His mercy, allows still more opportunities for them to repent.  And, just as the farmer tended the barren fig tree with special care, so God affords sinners whatever graces they need to leave their sinful ways behind and return to God’s love and embrace.  Divine grace is expressed as justice with compassion, and judgment with mercy.  But we cannot continue to draw strength and sustenance from God without producing fruit. God does not tolerate this type of “spiritual barrenness.”  The “fruit” God wants consists of acts of self-giving love done for others. These are the spiritual and the corporal works of mercy that we’re called to do out of love for God and others. Jesus warns that the Galileans died “by the malice of some human being” and the eighteen died by chance, but the fig tree “will die expressly because of inactivity and unproductiveness.”  However, the gardener is asking mercy for the disobedient fig tree. Is that what Jesus is doing when he warns us we will perish if we don’t repent?

Life Messages: 1) We need to live lives of repentance, a) because we never know when we will meet a tragedy of our own.  Let us repent while we have the chance. Let us turn to Christ, acknowledge our faults and failings and receive from him mercy, forgiveness and the promise of eternal life.  There is no better way to take these words of Jesus to heart than to go to sacramental confession, and there is no better time to go to confession than during Lent.  We are unable to predict when a tragic accident may happen to us.  Our end may come swiftly – without warning and without giving us an opportunity to repent; (b) because repentance helps us in life and in death.  It helps us to live as forgiven people and helps us to face death without fear.  When we repent, we are saying: "I've been going in the wrong direction – I must turn my life around."  Repentance begins with an admission of our sin and inadequacy.  We cannot see Jesus in all his fullness unless we look at Him through the lens of repentance.  Scripture says repentance results in forgiveness, renewal, and redirection.  Repentance is a statement of regret for the inner condition of our souls, with a determination to have that condition changed.  

2) We need to be fruitful trees in God’s orchard.  Lent is an ideal time "to dig around and manure" the tree of our life so that it may bring forth fruits.  The “fruits” God expects from us during Lent are repentance, renewal of life and the resulting virtues of love, compassion, mercy, forgiveness, selflessness and humble service.  Let us start producing these fruits in the family by becoming more sensitive to the feelings of others and by accepting each member of the family with love and respect.  The Christian fruit of reconciliation will grow in the family when each member shows good will by forgiving others and by asking their forgiveness. We become fruit-bearing in the community by caring for the poor, the sick, the little ones, the old, and the lonely.

3) We need to make the best use of the "second chances" God gives us.  Our merciful Father always gives us a second chance.  The prodigal son, returning to the father, was welcomed as a son, not treated as a slave.  The repentant Peter was made the head of the Church.  The persecutor Paul was made the apostle to the Gentiles.  During Lent, we, too, are given another chance to repent and return to our Heavenly Father’s love.  We are also expected to give others another chance when they ask our forgiveness.  God would like to use each one of us as the “gardener” in the parable to help Him cultivate our families and communities and enrich them with grace.  Let us thank God for using others to help us bear fruit.  Grace is everywhere.  Let us always cooperate with grace, especially during Lent. (Fr. Antony kadavil).

21 March 2019, 10:10