Commentary on Exodus 3:1-8a,13-15, 1 Corinthians 10:1-6,1-12, Luke 13:1-9
ONE OF THE RECURRENT THEMES throughout the Lenten season is the compassion and mercy of our God.
It is something that we constantly need to be reminded about. Our God is always faithful and consistent. His love for us never changes, no matter how we behave, no matter how serious our sins may be. It has to be that way because our God not only loves, he IS love. Love is of the very essence of his being; he cannot not love.
His love is like the sun which gives its warmth to good and bad alike; like the gentle nurturing rain which falls on good and bad alike. And we are called, as far as possible, to imitate him in this – to love always and unconditionally. Because we find that difficult, it is hard for us to think of God loving that way. We do need to get rid of the idea of an angry, disappointed, vengeful God threatening catastrophe on a wicked world – an idea still being fostered by those who claim to have had special revelations.
Does anything matter?
If God’s love for us is so constant and unchanged by our behaviour, does that mean we can do anything we like? Does it matter whether we lead good or bad lives? Whether we sin or not? It is very doubtful if we would be justified in drawing that conclusion.
Today’s readings seem to be saying three things to us:
a. We cannot find our salvation and wholeness as persons without the love and the help of God.
b. God does not punish people because of their bad behaviour.
c. God will not save us against our will or without our co-operation.
It is absolutely true – and we should never have doubts about this – that, if we sin, God continues to love us as he always did and does. But it is also true that, if we sin, we are not loving him. And so we become separated from him. Love is essentially mutual, it is a two-way process, it is a bonding. Love is not complete until it is reciprocated on both sides. So God’s love is not perfect, is not fully effective in me until I have opened myself to receive it and to give mine in return. When we sin, God does not stop loving us; it is we who stop loving him. It is we who break the relationship – always.
Does God kill people?
In today’s Gospel, some people approach Jesus and tell him of how some Galileans had been killed by Roman soldiers in the Temple sanctuary. Did they want Jesus, as a Galilean himself, to denounce the Roman authorities? Jesus responds by taking another track altogether. Instead, he mentions another incident, apparently a pure accident when a building fell on some purely innocent people and killed many. Jesus asks his questioners: “Did these people die because of their sin? Was this God’s way of punishing them? If I do not suffer in that way, does that mean that I have no sin?”
It is quite common to meet people who believe that such events are acts of punishment by God. Perhaps even more frequently one meets people who ask why a loving God does not prevent such things happening. As if God was a kind of puppet master who rules the world by pulling strings.
When a jumbo jet gets blown out of the skies because of a terrorist’s bomb on board and everyone is killed, is it because those passengers were more deserving of death?
When thousands are killed or made homeless as the result of some terrible natural disaster, an earthquake or a cyclone, are we to read it as an act of punishment for those people or even for the whole country?
Is the AIDS epidemic in Africa God’s way of punishing people for rampant sexual immorality? What about those who get AIDS through blood transfusions or babies who get it in their mother’s womb? AIDS may well indeed be the price that people, including the innocent, pay for promiscuous sex but there is no need to see God’s direct hand in it. (However, he may be present there in other very different ways.)
Does God love some people more?
Does God love those victims less? Are those who escape such disasters more loved by him? Maybe it is the other way round. Those who died may have been ready to meet their God while those who survive are being given an opportunity to put things right with their lives. Jesus gives a clear warning: “Unless you repent, you will ALL die as they did.” ‘Repent’ (Greek, metanoia, metanoia) implies not just regret for the past but a radical conversion and a complete change in our way of life in responding to and opening ourselves to the love of God.
What Jesus is saying is:
a. If I am regarded as very “successful” in my life (money, career, status...), it does not at all mean that I am a good person, a person without sin or that God somehow loves me more. Jesus makes that quite clear in the Gospel.
b. If I suffer in my life, it does not at all mean that God does not love me or that I am more sinful than others.
In fact, every single experience I have is a sign of God’s love. If I am showered with blessings – spiritual, emotional or material – they are given that I may share them with others, so that I become a channel of God’s love to others. If I am struck down with disaster, disease, pain or failure, it is again a message for me to seek and find there the presence of a loving God. Paradoxically, it is often only through such experiences that we can grow and come closer to God and others. Diseases like AIDS and cancer can draw out of relatives and friends extraordinary depths of compassion and care. Rude health and material prosperity can often lead to selfishness, individualism and neglect of others. Where there is love, there is God. Where there is no God, one is not likely to find much real loving.
No unconditional guarantees
Jesus is also saying that, just because I am a baptised Christian and call myself ‘Catholic’, it is of itself no guarantee that I will experience salvation and wholeness as a person. In today’s Second Reading, Paul, speaking of the Israelites in the desert with Moses, says, “[They] were all under the cloud [of God’s presence]; all passed through the sea; all were baptised into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; all ate the same spiritual food [manna] and all drank the same spiritual drink [from the rock struck by Moses]... Nevertheless, God was not pleased with most of our ancestors and their corpses littered the desert.”
Having an identity card or passport is no guarantee that I am a good and responsible citizen. Being baptised, even my presence at this Mass or my going to Confession is again, of itself, no guarantee that I really love God and love my brothers and sisters. For we know well we can go through these rituals in a very mechanical and meaningless way. After years of attending Mass or “going to confession” our lives may show little sign of progress in spiritual or interpersonal growth and responsibility. So, if I find myself consistently giving out the same laundry list in confession or if I don’t go because I have nothing to say, then it may be time for me to ask myself what exactly is happening in my Christian life.
Taking a close look
So today’s readings are asking us to take a good look at ourselves. We are like that tree that Jesus speaks of in the parable in today’s Gospel. It is alive but it bears no fruit. It should be cut down. The man responsible for the tree asks the owner to give it one more year. If after that, there is no fruit, it should be cut down.
Every Lenten season is our chance to fertilise our tree and to see how it can be more fruitful. For some reading this, it may indeed be their last year, their last Lent to take care of their tree.
I am being called not merely to survive personally as a Christian, to “hang in there” (just staying out of sin and being in the “state of grace”). I am being called to grow continually in being a truly loving person, loving God and loving all those around me.