By Father Donald Dilger
Third Sunday of Lent, Year C
First Reading: Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15; Response: Psalm 103:1-2, 3-4, 6-7, 8, 11; Second Reading: 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12; Gospel: Luke 13:1-9
In Year C of Sunday readings, we have encountered the call of two prophets – Isaiah (8th century B.C.) and Jeremiah (late 7th century and early 6th century B.C.). Today, we go back to the 13th century B.C. for the call of Moses. As a child, though he was a Hebrew quasi-foundling, he had been adopted into the Egyptian royal family through the Pharaoh’s daughter. He had grown up among the privileged of Egypt. One day, he came upon an Egyptian foreman abusing a Hebrew slave. Moses’ ethnicity came to the fore, and he killed the Egyptian. Threatened with execution, he fled southeast to the Land of Midian. There, he met Zipporah, who became his wife. He took a job as a shepherd for Jethro, his father-in-law. With the flock, he wandered into the Sinai (Horeb) Wilderness. In a bush on fire (but not scorched), he saw an angel in the flames. He came closer to see this strange sight, and the Lord God himself spoke out of the burning bush. “Moses, Moses!” He replied, “Here I am.” The Lord or the angel warned him not to come closer — too dangerous. “Take off your sandals, for the ground on which you stand is holy.” The Lord identifies himself as the God who was worshipped by Abraham, Isaac and Jacob — the forefathers of the Hebrews (Israelites).
The Lord notes that he has been watching the suffering of his people and is about to end it. Moses was to be his agent to lead them out of Egypt – northward to the land he promised to their ancestors many centuries ago. As is standard for prophets (Isaiah and Jeremiah), Moses objects. We saw above that Moses had a good reason to stay out of Egypt. The Lord insisted, assuring Moses that he would be with him. Moses wants to know the Lord’s name. The Lord engages in some beating around the bush, teasing Moses. “I am the same God your ancestors worshipped.” Moses persists. He knows that the Hebrews/Israelites would demand to know the name of the God who authorized him as their leader. The Lord teases again, “I AM WHO I AM.” Then, in a shorter form, “Tell the Israelites, ‘I AM sent me to you.’” Still deeper, he adds his personal name, “THE LORD.” The Hebrew word translated as “The Lord” is called by the Greek word “the Sacred Tetragrammaton,” or the sacred four-letter word in Hebrew. It is usually translated into English as Yahweh. But it is a word so sacred that the Israelites/Jews dare not pronounce it, and we should do the same out of respect, as Benedict XVI reminded us. When this sacred name occurs in a biblical passage in Hebrew, a reader substitutes the Hebrew word Elohim. We say, “the Lord.”
Psalm 103 picks up on the Name-theme of the first reading, “Bless the Lord, my soul, and my whole being bless his holy name.” The third verse of the Psalm relates directly to the first reading, “The Lord secures … the rights of all the oppressed. He has made known his ways to Moses and his deeds to the children of Israel.” The people respond, “The Lord is kind and merciful.”
In the second reading, Paul has to deal with a problem among the Christians of Corinth. Some were going to the pagan temples, as they did before their conversion. There, they participated in the rites and the banquets that followed the “liturgies.” Paul reminds them that the ancient Israelites also had sacred food and drink – the manna and water from the rock. Privileged as they were, God did not spare them when they lapsed into idolatry. “God was not pleased with them and struck them down.” What happened to the idolatrous Israelites could also happen to idolatrous Corinthians.
In the gospel, some bystanders inform Jesus of a violent attack on his fellow Galileans by Pontius Pilate, the Roman prefect of Judea. Pilate “mingled their blood with their sacrifices,” which they had brought to the temple of the Lord in Jerusalem. Those who reported this incident to Jesus seem to want to know if the Galileans met their violent end as a punishment from God for their sins. Jesus notes that they were no worse sinners than other Galileans who did not meet such an end. Jesus concludes, “Unless you repent, you too will perish as they did.” It is not likely that he or Luke meant that they also would be massacred by order of Pilate, but that they will also perish in whatever way unless they repent. Then, Jesus points out another example of unexpected death. Eighteen died when a tower collapsed in (or at) the Pool of Siloam. This pool, inside the city walls of Jerusalem, was the end point of a tunnel carved out of rock to bring a water supply into the city. Probably, it was close to the wall. Towers were built into the walls to strengthen them, to watch the approach of enemies or for active defense during a siege. One of these towers must have collapsed into the pool, causing sudden death to those nearby. They were no worse sinners that other Jerusalemites. This was not a punishment for their sins. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Jesus concludes as he did after the first example of unexpected death. It can happen to anyone. Therefore, it is best to always be prepared through repentance of one’s sins. Typical of Jesus, he adds a parable to illustrate the meaning of his conclusion to the two incidents. A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard. For three years, he came to gather the fig harvest. Oy Vey! No figs! He put in a work order for his gardener. “Cut that tree down! All it does is pull fertility out of the soil.” The gardener was a softie about that tree. He asked the owner for another year – a year of probation for the tree. All it needed was some TLC. “I will turn over the ground around it and apply manure.” Our Lectionary apparently does not favor the word “manure” and translates as “fertilizer.” The Greek word Luke uses is kopria, which is correctly translated as “manure” or “manure pile” or by a four letter word more popular than the word “manure.” Using the more correct translation as a metaphor could lead to interesting homiletic applications. The parable illustrates the dangers of unproductiveness – with a warning that God may give time for repentance, but one cannot be certain. Recall the strange story found in Mark 11:12-14, 20-21. Jesus was hungry. He went up to a fig tree but found no fruit. He said to it, “May fruit never come from you again.” And so it was. Like the owner in the parable, Jesus could have used a sympathetic gardener.