Feb 28, 2016: 3rd Sunday of Lent (C)

The son of man did not come love

Introduction

The story of salvation history continues during this Lenten season, with the major theme of this Sunday being the incomprehensibility of God.

1st Reading – Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15

Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro,
the priest of Midian.
Leading the flock across the desert, he came to Horeb,
the mountain of God.
There an angel of the LORD appeared to Moses in fire
flaming out of a bush.
As he looked on, he was surprised to see that the bush,
though on fire, was not consumed.
So Moses decided,
“I must go over to look at this remarkable sight,
and see why the bush is not burned.”

When the LORD saw him coming over to look at it more closely,
God called out to him from the bush, Moses! Moses!”
He answered, “Here I am.”
God said, “Come no nearer!
Remove the sandals from your feet,
for the place where you stand is holy ground.
I am the God of your fathers, “ he continued,
“the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”
Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
But the LORD said,
“I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt
and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers,
so I know well what they are suffering.
Therefore I have come down to rescue them
from the hands of the Egyptians
and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land,
a land flowing with milk and honey.”

Moses said to God, “But when I go to the Israelites
and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’
if they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what am I to tell them?”
God replied, “I am who am.”
Then he added, “This is what you shall tell the Israelites:
I AM sent me to you.”

God spoke further to Moses, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites:
The LORD, the God of your fathers,
the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob,
has sent me to you.

“This is my name forever;
thus am I to be remembered through all generations.”

Today we hear of Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush.

Recall that when Moses was about forty (Acts 7:23), he killed an Egyptian who was beating a Hebrew and fled the country. He went to Midian, which was located on the eastern shore of the Red Sea in the area of present Saudi Arabia and probably included the Sinai Peninsula. There he married a priest’s daughter and settled down to be a shepherd.

Moses was tending the flock of his father-in-law Jethro, the priest of Midian. Leading the flock across the desert, he came to Horeb, the mountain of God.

The first forty years of his life were spent as a prince in pharaoh’s court, but here, Moses as presented as anything but a leader.  Not only is he a lowly shepherd in the wilderness, the flocks he tends are not even his own.

Horeb is a Semitic name that probably means “desolate place.” It is unclear whether this mountain is one and the same as Mount Sinai; the location of either is unknown.  However, geography is not the concern here, theology is.

There an angel of the LORD appeared to him in fire flaming out of a bush.

“Angel of the Lord” is often used as a reverential way of referring to God.

The Hebrew term for bush is sneh, which is probably an allusion to Sinai.

As he looked on, he was surprised to see that the bush, though on fire, was not consumed. So Moses decided, “I must go over to look at this remarkable sight, and see why the bush is not burned.”

Fire is a frequent biblical symbol for God’s presence (Exodus 13:21; 19:18; Genesis 3:24; 1 Kings 18:24, 38); it particularly expresses his all-consuming holiness (Hebrews 12:29).

When the LORD saw him coming over to look at it more closely, God called out to him from the bush, “Moses! Moses!” He answered, “Here I am.” God said, “Come no nearer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.

The spot, and in fact the entire mountain, was made sacred by God’s presence. See Exodus 19:23; 24:2.

At that time, removing one’s shoes was the equivalent of today’s gesture of removing one’s hat, a token of respect and submission.

I am the God of your father,” he continued, “the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”

The first part of the divine revelation is that the God who speaks is the very God who was worshiped by the ancestors.

Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.

He wasn’t afraid of the burning bush until he realized that God was in it. For who can look at God and live? (Exodus 33:20).

But the LORD said, “I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers, so I know well what they are suffering. Therefore I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land,

God has seen and heard the cry of his suffering people (Exodus 2:23-25).

At the time, gods were associated with a specific nation or territory and only had sovereignty there.  The God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not only revealing himself in the land of the Midianites, but he will release the Israelites from bondage in the land of Egypt and lead them into yet another land, the land of Caanan.

a land flowing with milk and honey.”

An abundance of milk and honey is a sign of prosperity and peace. In the scriptures, “honey” usually refers to date syrup, as wild bee honey was not plentiful.

“But,” said Moses to God, “when I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ if they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what am I to tell them?”

Moses asks for God’s name, not because he doubts but because a new revelation of God requires a new name.  If God is doing something new (delivering an enslaved people), old titles would be inadequate.  Giving the people the new name of God would not only authenticate Moses’ role as their leader, but it will also announce to them the mighty deeds God is about to perform on their behalf.

God replied, “I am who am.” Then he added, “This is what you shall tell the Israelites: I AM sent me to you.”

The revealed name (YHWH in Hebrew, a language without vowels) is both clearly grasped and difficult to understand.

First, it conveys that God is not defined or determined by any other than himself.  As the self-existent One, he cannot be anything other than self-sufficient, and therefore all-sufficient: the inexhaustible fountain of being and bliss.

The name is similar in sound and appearance to the first person qal (the Hebrew imperfect form of the verb “to be”).  This form denotes continuing action, thus the name literally means, “I AM always.” In this sense, the name also indicates that he is eternal and unchangeable, and always the same, yesterday, today, and forever; he will be what he will be and what he is.

God spoke further to Moses, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites: The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.”

Lest the name I AM should amuse or puzzle them, Moses is further directed to make use of more familiar name of God:  The LORD, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.

This is my name forever; thus am I to be remembered through all generations.”

The new name YHWH signals a new revelation; this is the divine name particularly associated with God’s covenant relationship with Israel.  The verb form implies continuing active involvement, while the promise of deliverance identifies the way God will be be we with the people: always present to deliver.  This is the way God will be remembered through all the generations.

Note: the Jews regarded God’s personal name of YHWH as too holy to pronounce.  When reading the text, they substituted ’adonay (“my Lord”).

2nd Reading – 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters,
that our ancestors were all under the cloud
and all passed through the sea,
and all of them were baptized into Moses
in the cloud and in the sea.
All ate the same spiritual food,
and all drank the same spiritual drink,
for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them,
and the rock was the Christ.
Yet God was not pleased with most of them,
for they were struck down in the desert.

These things happened as examples for us,
so that we might not desire evil things, as they did.
Do not grumble as some of them did,
and suffered death by the destroyer.
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.
Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure
should take care not to fall.

In today’s second reading, Paul undertakes a daring and complex method of interpreting Scripture in order to warn the Corinthians about overconfidence in their status as Christians.

In it, he draws connections between the fate of the Israelites who wandered in the wilderness and the Corinthians of his own day — a method of interpretation called typological exegesis.  However, Paul seems to be modifying the way that typology usually works: instead of using the past to predict or understand the present, he uses the present to re-interpret the past.  His basis for this is his belief that since Christ is the end-goal of Israel’s history, he is also there in its beginning.

I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that our ancestors were all under the cloud

In Exodus, a divine cloud guided the Israelites out of Egypt and across the desert to the Promised Land.  It served two purposes: it sometimes contracted itself into a cloudy pillar, shining on one side to show them their way, dark on the other to hide them from their pursuing enemies (Exodus 13:21-22); other times, it spread itself over them as a mighty sheet, to defend them from the burning sun in the sandy desert (Psalm 105:39).

and all passed through the sea,

The miraculous passage through the Red Sea (Exodus 13:17-14:29).

and all of them were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.

Both of these events prefigured baptism. These events joined the people to Moses and everything he represented, bringing them under obligation to Moses’s law and covenant — just as baptism brings us under Christian law and covenant.

“Paul says the Jews were under the cloud in order to point out that everything that
happened to them is meant to be understood as a picture of the truth which has been
revealed to us. Under the cloud they were protected from their enemies until they were delivered from death, analogous to baptism. For when they passed through the Red Sea they were delivered from the Egyptians who died in it (Exodus 14:28-29), and their death prefigured our baptism, which puts our adversaries to death as well.” [The Ambrosiaster (between A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles]

All ate the same spiritual food,

A reference to the manna God provided to the Israelites in the desert (Exodus 16:1-36);  sustenance of supernatural origin.

and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them,

Moses got water from the rock at the beginning of the wilderness sojourn (Exodus 17:1-7) and again at its end (Numbers 20:2-13), therefore an oral tradition grew up claiming that this miraculous rock must have followed them through the wilderness.  Paul certainly seems to have accepted this tradition.

There is no Old Testament record of the movement of the rock — it is recorded in Scripture here for the first time.

and the rock was the Christ.

Since God was frequently referred to as a rock (Deuteronomy 32:4, 15, 18, 30, 31; Psalm 18:3; Psalm 19:15), and since Jesus Christ is identified with God, Paul takes an interpretive step and claims it was really Christ who led the Israelites through the wilderness.

Just as the cloud and Red Sea prefigured baptism, the spiritual food and drink in the desert prefigured the Eucharist.

Yet God was not pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the desert.

Here is the point Paul is trying to make: these saving events (the cloud showing them the way, the parting of the Red Sea, and the provision of supernatural food and drink) were of no avail to most of the people of that generation.

Despite all the wonders that God worked for them, the people still grumbled, and so they were punished.

These things happened as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil things, as they did.

Since the Israelites were ancestors in faith, their history was an example for the Corinthians.

Do not grumble as some of them did, and suffered death by the destroyer.

Based on the story of the Passover (Exodus 12:23), many rabbis believed that there was a
special angel of destruction, an executioner of divine vengeance.

“Those who were destroyed prefigured Judas, who betrayed Christ and was eliminated from the number of the apostles by the judgment of God.” [The Ambrosiaster (between A.D. 366-384), Commentaries on Thirteen Pauline Epistles]

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.

The messianic period is the final period in salvation history (Hebrews 1:1-2); the
period in which the Corinthians lived (as do we).  Even though they live in the “end of the ages” and their salvation has already been accomplished in Christ, it is not yet complete in them (or us).

Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.

Paul was illustrating to the Corinthians, by example of the Israelites, that receiving God’s wondrous gifts are no guarantee of God’s continued favor.  Their privilege of their Christian calling and initiation into its mysteries was, in itself, no guarantee of salvation — they would have to demonstrate their fidelity again and again.  Christian life requires Christian living.

“Paul wants to remind us that we are not saved merely because we happen to have been the recipients of God’s free grace. We have to demonstrate that we are willing recipients of that free gift. The children of Israel received it, but they proved to be unworthy of it, and so they were not saved.” [Origin (ca. A.D. 240, Commentary on First Corinthians 4,45,2-5]

Gospel – Luke 13:1-9

Some people told Jesus about the Galileans
whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way
they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!
Or those eighteen people who were killed
when the tower at Siloam fell on them—
do you think 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!”

And he told them this parable:
“There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard,
and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none,
he said to the gardener,
‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree
but have found none.
So cut it down.
Why should it exhaust the soil?’
He said to him in reply,
‘Sir, 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 twofold lesson in today’s gospel is a sobering one. First, we must be prepared for sudden death by being reconciled with God at all times, for we never know what lies ahead. Second, while God may be patient with us and desire our salvation, he requires that we participate in our own maturing in righteousness.  We risk God’s judgment if we disregard his grace.

Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.

An act of gross brutality: the Romans apparently murdered a group of people while they were at worship, engaged in the act of ritual sacrifice, so that their blood mingled with the blood of the animals they were offering.

We are not told how many victims there were; perhaps it was only a few, which would explain why this event is not better known.  However, the brutality corresponds to the picture of a vengeful Pilate obtained from both the Gospels and extrabiblical sources, such as the first century Jewish historian, Flavius Josephus describes:

“So he [Pilate] habited a great number of his soldiers in their habit, who carried daggers under their garments, and sent them to a place where they might surround them [the rebellious Jews]. He bade the Jews himself go away; but they boldly cast reproaches upon him so he gave the soldiers that signal which had been beforehand agreed on; the soldiers then laid upon them much greater blows than Pilate had commanded them, and equally punished those that were tumultuous, and those that were not, nor did they spare them in the least; and since the people were unarmed, and were caught by men prepared for what they were about, there were a great number of them slain by this means, and others of them ran away wounded; and thus an end was put to this sedition.” [Antiquities of the Jews 18:3,2(61-62)].

He said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means!

Believing there is a direct corollary between the character of one’s behavior and the circumstances of one’s life, the people of the time wondered what terrible things these individuals might have done to deserve such dire consequences (see John 9:1-2).

Jesus makes it clear that these victims were no more guilty of sin than anyone else.  Their misfortune cannot be blamed on their own moral state.

But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!

Jesus isn’t saying that they might suffer the same fate, but that if something equally sudden and expected occur to them, they should not be unprepared.  In other words, the Galileans had had no time to repent at the time of their deaths — we should be reconciled with God before disaster strikes so that divine judgment does not accompany any misfortune that may befall us.

Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them –

Another tragic and unexpected incident, this time probably accidental.

The tower referred to was probably one of the towers that guarded the pool of Siloam, located in the southeastern corner of Jerusalem.

do you think 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!”

Again, Jesus insists that the fate of those who perished was not related to their moral state.

And he told them this parable: “There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard, and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none, he said to the gardener, ‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?’

Jesus tells a parable to demonstrate a point about the mercy of God. The owner of the fig tree (a traditional symbol of Israel) had every right to expect his tree to bear fruit.  He concludes that it will never bear fruit and was only depleting the soil — why not replace it with another, more promising, tree?

The reference to three years may be an allusion to Hebrew numerology, in which the number three indicates completion — or it may just merely indicate a sufficient period of time.

He said to him in reply, ‘Sir, 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 one who tended the tree requested another year of nurturing to see if it might still bear fruit.  If it did produce, it would be saved; if not, it could then be justifiably cut down.

Jesus’ point is this: God is like both the owner and the diligent gardener, willing to give us time to repent.  During this time, every means for fostering our repentance is given.  Still, we must avail ourselves of the opportunity and these means, for they are not endless.  Final judgment is a reality.

The point being made is the inverse of the point about those who died unprepared.  The fact that God does not punish sinners immediately does not mean that he approves of their sin; rather, his patience shows he is merciful and they should repent while there is time.

Connections and Themes

I Am Who I Am.  The personal name of God tells us so much and yet so little.  If what we have learned about names is true, that they reveal something about the nature or character of the one named, then the nature of God is certainly shrouded in mystery, for the exact meaning of God’s name eludes us.  Nor do the various ways God acts in our lives give us a clue as to its meaning.  At times God’s behavior seems so paradoxical; at other times, contradictory.  Is God capricious or just mysterious in relating to human beings?

Actually, the way we respond to God’s initiative and ever-present grace seems to influence the way God will continue to interact with us.  In the matter of salvation, though the initiative and the transforming power are God’s, and salvation itself is a gift from God, we are not merely passive puppets in the drama.  God gives the invitation, but that invitation must be accepted if there is to be any saving activity.  This means that the ways God is experienced, though clearly determined by and under the control of God, are influenced by our dispositions.  When we are needy, God comes as a provider; when we are frightened, God comes as comforter and strength’ when we are recalcitrant, God comes as judge and disciplinarian. God is a burning bush that captures our attention and plunges us into mystery; God is a gardener who cannot allow a fruitless fig tree to sap the life out of the soil that nourishes other plants.  God comes to us in whatever ways we might need divine aid.

God sent me to you.  One would think that a God as magnificent and powerful as ours would not need intermediaries.  Or if they were used, they would be of greater value than bushes in a mountainous wilderness or hired hands in orchards.  Yet that is just the way God seems to work.  God uses whatever or whoever is at hand.  This is true whether it is an element of the natural world that is normally indifferent toward humans, or an uncomplicated person who only concern is to do his or her job well, or an individual who has been thrust by circumstances into the limelight.  In every life there are those who speak for or act in the place of God. Lent is a time to discern who those people or things are.  Who communicates God to us? Who intercedes for us before the Holy One? On the other hand, in whose life do we act as emissary? How to we reveal to others the message of God that we have received?

The rock is Christ.  In the midst of this ambiguity, we have one sure source of stability: Christ.  It is Christ who reveals the nature and meaning of the divine name; it is Christ who intercedes for us before God.  Christ, the one who set his face toward Jerusalem, there to suffer and die, is the great messenger through whom God is revealed.  He is the one who reveals majesty through the simplicity of a bush; he is the one who judges with the patience of a gardener.  However, the limits of the experience and mercy of God in our lives are defined by our own openness.  Despite the blessings we receive in the wilderness of our lives, it could happen that God is not pleased with us.  We must not take God’s goodness for granted.

These readings close on a note of caution: take care! We are not told whether the fig tree actually ever bore fruit. We might be able to rest secure in the knowledge of the mercy and love of God, but these readings tell us we should not dare to rest passively or complacently.

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