Third Sunday of Lent (C) | Fr Peter Harries ponders the fruitfulness that might come from disaster and personal tragedy.
Bad news travels fast. The tower at Siloam in Jerusalem fell killing people. Shoddy building work? Perhaps? Some disturbance in the temple? Pilate’s solution as colonial ruler was to kill a few people – keep the locals in order by fear. Disasters happen and people, good and bad alike, get killed. We should plan to minimise known risks, although building regulations may be costly to enforce, and adequate policing expensive. The news of the terrorist attack in New Zealand last week horrified us all. Could it have been avoided is a question to be debated. Stricter gun laws? More web vigilance? Better profiling of extremists? The debate will continue.
In today’s gospel people arrive breathless with the latest bad news – they are specific incidents, not generalities. Did these Galileans deserve to die? Was their worship in the temple faulty? Were the Jerusalemites killed by the collapsed tower especially notorious sinners? Did these particular individuals rather than other individuals deserve to die – that seems to be the presumption. It is a frequently asked kind of question. Families in the hospital sometimes say to me about a patient that they are good people, that they have never done anybody any harm, that they don’t deserve to die young or with cancer. Why do bad things happen to good people?
We can sometimes – slightly guiltily – take pleasure when bad things happen to bad people, whether fleeing thugs getting killed in a one-car crash, or when the police shoot someone who has kidnapped a child. Bad things happening to bad people seems OK – we can cope with it. Bad things happening to good people however, seems unjust, sometimes very unjust. Jesus’ immediate reply to the avid news-mongers is not to give a simple explanation. Instead he calls us all to repentance. We are not to gloat over disasters happening to others, thinking ourselves exempt from the possibility of facing imminent judgement. No, we are to repent, to orientate our lives towards God and live out his mercy. That is why we read this gospel passage during Lent.
Jesus supplements this call to repentance by telling a parable about a fig tree. Fig trees do not bear fruit apparently until they are two or more, usually three, years old – as everyone knew in those days. At three years old the fig tree should be bearing fruit and so deserving its place in the vineyard. If it isn’t bearing fruit, so cut it down, and plant something that will fruit, a tree that will enhance the beauty of the vineyard. Here we remember that in the Old Testament the vineyard represents God’s people, so this barren fig tree symbolises an unfruitful member of God’s people. However the gardener intercedes: he offers to manure it, tend it gently, and perhaps it will fruit next year; this tree is just slow to mature. The gardener’s intercession is granted, the tree lives another year after the threatened disaster in the hope that it will bear fruit. So for us, we are to be fruitful in good works. Whatever disaster we encounter, whether in our personal lives or in the public life of our country/world we are urged to bear fruit. Perhaps the latest disaster, public or private, will act like manure, fouling our neatly presented exterior facade, jolting our equilibrium, and so allowing God’s grace to penetrate deeply through to our minds and hearts, re-illuminating them so that we can produce the desired good fruit.
In our first reading God reveals to Moses his sacred name, a name so holy that by Jesus’ time only the high priest pronounced and even then only once a year. The etymologists tell us that the sacred name, probably best rendered something like “I am who I am” is clearly formed from the Hebrew verb “to be”. God is.
If we try to imagine God, we are likely to imagine God in our own image, a God who saves the just – like us – and punishes the wicked with hell – and most especially the sinners we particularly hate, terrorists, or paedophiles, or that bloke over there. We can quote plenty of Old Testament texts to that effect. But God is. Jesus, the Son of God is heading to Jerusalem, the site of the disasters talked about, to reveal God’s love, that God is. Jesus crucified for us and all creation, to tend his vineyard with us to be fruitful fig trees or vines, God is. Whatever form our fruitfulness takes following whatever disasters of pruning, God is. We are not only a fruitful vineyard, the people of God, but also children of God, made perfect through suffering like the son of God, and in fruitfulness united to God.
Readings: Ex 3:1-8, 13-15 | 1 Cor 10:1-6, 1-12 | Luke 13:1-9
Photograph by Fr Lawrence Lew OP.
A Website Visitor
Thank-you for your homely.Since many years the reflections of torch help me to the life and mission in Africa.
A Website Visitor
This homily is chock-full of very thoughtful ideas, notions, facts etc. I am thankful for your contribution & will give it much thought in the days to come. I also thank God for all things that are good.
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