Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15; Psalm 103; 1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12; Luke 13:1-9
The first Sunday of Lent, the reading has always been about Jesus’ fast of forty days, and the second Sunday, his Transfiguration. The sixth Sunday is Palm Sunday, when we read the Passion from our Gospel for the year (with John’s version on Good Friday). In this year of Luke, the fourth Sunday will be the Prodigal Son, and the fifth will be the woman caught in adultery, from John. (You have probably noticed that parishes with RCIA have the option to use the same readings every year.)
The Lectionary tells us, with good reason, that these middle Sundays are “about conversion.”
But this third Sunday the reading is obscure. First Jesus talks about some Galileans “whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.” Then he talks about a fig tree that bears no fruit—you can get an idea of how weird that parable is if you look at the different treatments Matthew, Mark, and Luke give it: a rich but confusing episode in the life and preaching of Jesus.
The theme that will emerge, a central theme of Luke, is that we are on our way. Christianity is not about where you are, but where you are going, and the progress you make on the road. Lent is a time to remember that we have not yet arrived.
The first three readings are a complicated web. The Lectionary says the Old Testament readings of Lent aim to give us a tour of the Old Testament, while the Epistle ties together the first reading and the Gospel. In every season, the Psalm brings out the central theme of the Old Testament reading.
This Sunday, the Epistle is from 1 Corinthians 10. It says that everything that happens in the Old Testament “happened as examples for us.” And it says, particularly, that the Exodus is about us. We skip some verses about the idolatry and porneia of the people of the Exodus, but skip to the central point: God provided, and the people grumbled. They did not receive what he offered. It’s not good enough to be one of the people, if you do not let God’s presence transform you in thanksgiving.
The Psalm says the Lord is kind and merciful. The Hebrew words speak of God caressing us, bending down in acknowledgement of us. One of its central words is hesed, which means loving kindness but literally that he bows his head to us, shows us reverence.
The Old Testament reading these all spell out is Moses and the Burning Bush. There God says he hears his people’s cry, witnesses their affliction: he bows his head to them. Then it says who he is: he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and he is the great “I am.” Let us just say that God’s hesed is not a sign of his weakness, but of his awesomeness. He is the God of life, of superabundance, the God who saves and is the source of all being. As at the Transfiguration, we should be overawed at his goodness—and moved by it.
In our Gospel, Jesus calls us to move.
In the first half, “some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate” had shed, in their place of sacrifice. Now, this is Luke 13. In Luke 9, the turning point, Jesus sets his face for Jerusalem; people recognize him, fear him, as one whose “face is set for Jerusalem” (9:53). But in chapter 17, he will still be “between Samaria and Galilee.” So at this point, he is in Galilee, on his way to Jerusalem.
So first he speaks of Galileans: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? . . . If you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” To the Galileans, he says, it’s not about what happens to you or where you’re from: it’s about repentance.
Then he speaks of his destination, “Or those eighteen people were were killed when the tower at Siloam [near Jerusalem] fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?” It’s not about being a Jerusalemite either. All will perish. But God calls us to repentance.
Lent reminds us: it’s not about being “a Catholic.” It’s about repentance, about being moved by the awesome God.
So then he tells the parable of the fig gree. “For three years now”—we are in the third year of Jesus’s ministry—“I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none.” But the gardener begs one more chance: “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.”
The gardener, too, wants the fruit of repentance. It’s not good enough to be “his” tree—unless the fertilizer he pours on us moves us and transforms us. Not good enough to put up tents and get cozy on Mount Tabor. Not good enough to be a Catholic without Lent, or the Cross, or the hard journey.
Jesus calls us to move.
What complacency does Jesus want to work out of you?