3rd. Sunday of Lent (C)
(Exodus 3:1-8, 13-15; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12; Luke 13:1-9)
In reality, however, for many so-called believers, those are somewhat empty words; for they consider His goodness to be such that even though, as they say, "we are not fanatical enough to make it our purpose to recognize and correct what may need to be corrected in our life-style, He won’t punish us for such sins --'weaknesses' or 'mistakes' really -- if we occasionally use the word ‘sorry’ or give a little more to the Sunday collection or a local charity. Above all, they like to recall that God is our Father; meaning that -- as with many modern parents -- He dotes on us His children and wants us above all to be happy, more or less practising, Catholics, and occasionally confessing Christians.
Although some may think I am exaggerating rather unpleasantly, that is the attitude of mind -- largely unconscious I admit -- in which too many Catholics today live out their relationship with God: He is rather like a memory from childhood days, floating around our minds, occasionally coming into focus for our notice but who/which is really almost totally irrelevant to our experience of and response to the reality of living today. And yet, on the other hand, they still regard themselves as passable Catholics and, indeed, somewhat special people, because -- after all -- the majority of people today in this country and in Europe, do not believe in God at all. Even those who have completely given up practicing their Catholic and Christian faith for the most part say that they still like Jesus as a man; but they do not believe in Him as God since ’God is redundant’, which they explain with words such as: ‘scientists say they can explain the world without Him, and He certainly does not seem to intervene in any way in our affairs … look at all the scandals on high, and the corruption, crime, and suffering going on around us, and yet He does nothing!’
However, we who do believe, we who are serious Catholics in our desire to know, love, and serve God in Jesus, by the Spirit, find a truer appreciation of God when we look at today’s readings, beginning with our first reading where Moses was drawn by curiosity to approach a blazing bush in the desert:
I must go over to look at this remarkable sight, and see why the bush is not burned.
God called to him, apparently from the middle of the bush:
Come no nearer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.
And, what is more, He said it in such a tone that:
Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
Curiosity and holiness are incompatible it would seem, for not even Moses was allowed to draw close to God out of mere curiosity. Fear however – reverential fear, that is, not the native, instinctive type of self-centred fear – is much more appropriate, allowing Moses to draw close to the Lord and to hear His word! And this is in accord with the teaching we heard in the psalm:
For as the heavens are high above the earth, so surpassing is (the Lord’s) kindness toward those who fear Him.
Surely this shows quite clearly that God is not the soft touch many so fondly imagine.
Such an appreciation is confirmed when we turn our attention to our second reading taken from St. Paul’s letter to his converts at Corinth. There, he recalls how God had led Israel through the desert with miracles such as the stupendous crossing of the Red Sea, and other blessings of protection, food and drink, in times of great need. And yet he says:
God was not pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the desert.
Then he goes on to draw a lesson for us from this rejection by God of the majority of those living apparently ordinary and acceptable lives as members of the Chosen People:
Now these things happened as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil things as they did.
What were these evil things? They worshipped their stomachs, delighted in sexual revels; they tried to put God to the test in their lives, adopting an ”if He doesn’t give some sign, we won’t believe” sort of attitude; and then, of course, they were great grumblers. Paul quite deliberately repeated his warning, expressly including us this time:
These things happened to them as an example and they have been written down as a warning to us, upon whom the end of the ages has come.
How true it is that God, the true God, is no soft touch, no sugar Daddy!! He is not One who will allow us to remain like spoilt children at the level of infantile pleasures or fantasies, for He intends to raise us up to maturity in the likeness of Jesus as His adopted children: Heaven, most certainly, is not for adults who like to pretend they are just care-free little children enjoying themselves in Daddy’s wonderful world.
However, some might still be thinking that those are only readings from the Old Testament and from the writings of St. Paul, whereas Jesus Himself was different. Let us now, therefore, turn to Jesus as we heard Him speaking in our Gospel reading.
The Jews had tried to stir up hatred of the Romans and trouble for Jesus by asking Him about the fate of some Galileans killed by the Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, as they were offering sacrifices to God. Jesus, however, was not to be deflected from His main purpose, and He replied:
Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?
He then immediately went on to recall a very unfortunate and tragic accident that had only recently occurred. Now with us, it is customary to refer to victims of such-like accidents as though they were now most certainly at peace and happy in heaven, after having been so unfortunate on earth. That was not the way Jews of ancient times reacted, for they tended to think that there must have been some secret sin in the lives of those tragic sufferers which would account for their untimely deaths. As for Jesus, His own attitude was in contrast both to the attitude of His Jewish contemporaries and to our modern expectancies, for He neither judged the dead nor did He pour out any banalities such as our modern, politically-correct, expressions of sympathy and condolence, for He simply went on to say:
Those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them, do you think that they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent you will all perish as they did!
From such a vignette you can begin to appreciate how alien so much human fellowship-and-feeling of a ‘holiness-without-God’ origin, and so much irreligious clap-trap about ‘God’s goodness’, from the authors and promoters of emotional outpourings without any commitment of faith or discipline of teaching, must be both to Jesus and to God Himself!
Now, I am not denying that God is good. Far from it! He is good, indeed, He is ultimate and infinite Goodness Itself, but He is not good in the way our sinful world imagines or proclaims Him to be. God is good to those, who, as Jesus said, repent; that is, God’s goodness is geared first of all towards our repentance and then, further, towards our sanctification; it is not the goodness of indulgence, imbecility, or indifference.
Jesus’ first call on beginning His public ministry was:
This is the time of fulfilment. The kingdom of God is at hand. Repent, and believe in the gospel. (Mark 1:14-15)
That word “repent” was and is absolutely essential. Only human beings can repent: thanks to our unique likeness to God we can recognize sin and learn to hate it. No one who refuses or fails to repent for sin can be acceptable to God, as St. John in his first letter (1:5-10) tells us:
God is light and in Him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with Him while we continue to walk in darkness, we lie and do not act in truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, then we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of His Son Jesus cleanses us from all sin. If we say we are without sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. If we say we have not sinned, we make Him a liar, and His word is not in us.
Jesus had been sent to plead for and to save those who were -- as sinners -- worthy of God’s punishment, just as the fruitless tree in the Gospel parable deserved to be cut down. Jesus’ plea to His Father, however, was:
Leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not, you can cut it down.
That is, Jesus, of set purpose, would pour out His blood in the agony of His crucifixion to fertilize our lives, giving us another -- and this time final -- opportunity to learn to repent and bring forth fruit for God, fruit acceptable to Him.
Towards those who do repent, God is quite unimaginably good; for, having purified them through the blood of His very own Son, He then goes on, as St. Paul expressly assures us, to bestow upon them blessings unlimited:
He Who did not spare His own Son, but handed Him over for us all, how will He not also give us everything else along with Him? (Romans 8:32)
And it is at this point that Paul himself proceeds to sing one of the most beautiful songs to God’s great goodness that could ever be conceived, a song of such beauty that it makes all modern sugar-daddy imaginations seem, as indeed they most truly are, sick and utterly unworthy (Romans 8:34-9:1):
It is Christ Who died, rather, was raised, Who also is at the right hand of God, Who intercedes for us. What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword? As it is written: "For Your sake we are being slain all the day; we are looked upon as sheep to be slaughtered." No, in all these things, we conquer overwhelmingly through Him Who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.
People of God, may that love of Christ pierce us through and through and be reflected in us both as true and humble repentance for our sins, and as loving zeal for God’s glory and the well-being of Mother Church. For the love of Jesus is being offered us still today, and His Precious Blood -- poured out for many on Calvary -- continues to be sprinkled on us and on all our efforts at Christian living through the Church’s sacraments, so that we may bring forth fruit ever more expressive of our own sincere repentance, and grateful love ever more befitting God’s great goodness and deep, deep, mercy.
On the other hand, without such repentance, He will be found no soft touch, for He is a Holy God Who, in the words of Jesus’ saving plea, has already warned the unrepentant:
If it does not bear fruit you can cut it down.