Third Sunday in Lent

Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12; Luke 13:1-9

Over the past few weeks, our world has witnessed several terrible tragedies: 

  • The crash of an airplane in Ethiopia that killed 157 people;
  • A terrorist attack on two mosques in New Zealand that left 50 dead;
  • A typhoon in the Philippines that killed over 200; and
  • A cyclone that caused thousands of deaths in Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi. 

It would seem ludicrous, unjust and even cruel to suggest that these natural and human-made disasters were some form of divine judgment on the people who died. 

Yet that is precisely what many people believed in biblical times.  (Such beliefs persist even today.)  When he mentioned two contemporary disasters, one the work of a brutal Roman governor and the other the collapse of a building, Jesus made a point to contest these notions. 

While it is true that we can and do at times suffer the consequences of our sins and those consequences sometimes spill into the lives of innocent people, there is not a neat and linear relationship between human sin and human suffering.  Some people do horrible things yet evade detection or judgment, at least in this life.  Others live seemingly blameless lives yet experience terrible accidents, diseases or death. 

It’s a mistake, Jesus said, to suppose that all human suffering is the result of sin or that the lack of suffering is an indication of righteousness.  All of us are sinners and all of us need to repent of our sins and work with the grace of God to overcome them.  That’s why we make the pilgrim journey of Lent both individually and together as a church. 

Like the ancient Israelites whose Exodus was the focus of St. Paul’s reflections in our second reading, we can choose to “opt out” of the way of repentance and following God’s will.  We can also pretend, as many of them did, that we can live however we want or grumble that God isn’t meeting our expectations or demands. 

We can take God’s goodness and faithfulness for granted.  The freedom that we have in Christ is not a license to do whatever we want and then casually expect that God will forgive us.  On the contrary, Jesus reminds us in his parable on the patient and nurturing gardener and the fig tree that God will hold us accountable for what we produce…or don’t.

That’s a sobering thought. 

Thankfully, we know that throughout salvation history God has cared for his people.  In our first reading, we were reminded how personally God was willing to be in relationship with the people of Israel.  When God spoke to Moses from the burning bush in our first reading, it’s evident that he took the suffering of his people in Egypt personally: “I have witnessed…I have heard….I have come down…to lead them out.” 

In his parable about the fig tree in our gospel reading, we see a similar sense of personal commitment, even devotion. When a tree remains barren after three years of care—not coincidentally, the same length of time as Jesus’ public ministry—the master is understandably frustrated and impatient.  He sees it as no longer worth the investment and wants to cut his losses.  The gardener, however, is willing to give it yet another chance and even more attention so that it may bear fruit. 

Lent is the time when God cultivates the ground around us through our fasting, prayer and good works and fertilizes us through the power of his word and the grace of the sacraments.  It’s our annual “wake up call.”  Let’s not press the snooze button but instead say Carpe diem et carpe gratia Dei, “Seize the day and seize God’s grace!“ +