At that very time there were some present who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. He asked them, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were worse sinners than all other Galileans? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did. Or those eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam fell on them—do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”
Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and found none. So he said to the gardener, ‘See here! For three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree, and still I find none. Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?’ He replied, ‘Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it. If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.’ ”
“Out of the Spiritual Wilderness”
The readings of the third Sunday of Lent lead us to reflect on the image of the spiritual wilderness – a state of confusion and indecision that many biblical characters experienced – a reflection which may lead us to some valuable insights on how to move beyond this destructive state.
The first reading contains a very significant passage where God’s name is disclosed. We see Moses at a very low point in his life. Disowned and rejected by his fellow Israelites, Moses has fled his home, Egypt, and became a wandering shepherd, tending somebody else’s flock in the wilderness. In this desolate location, Moses sees a bush which was burning without being consumed. Approaching this unexplainable phenomenon, Moses hears a voice telling him to take off his sandals because he stands on “holy ground”, that is, in God’s presence. God then identifies himself as the God of Moses’ father and his distant ancestors, the patriarchs. This was the same God who had called Moses’ people into existence, and who was fully aware that they were threatened with utter destruction in Egypt. God tells Moses that he intends to deliver the Israelites from the hands of their oppressors and give them a land of their own.
Moses’ response to this wonderful declaration showed that he was truly in the “spiritual wilderness” – he was not sure which God spoke to him, and so he asked for God’s name! Moses did not seem to know the God of his family, or the history of his people. God’s answer was both mysterious and informative. In a direct translation from Hebrew God gave his name as, “I am who I am”. Grammatically, this phrase is a simple repetition of the verb “to be”. Stated in the Hebrew imperfect tense, which implies a continuing and unfinished action, God’s answer means something like, “I am the one who always is”. Many interpretations have been offered for this puzzling statement. The context of our passage suggests that this statement refers to God’s unceasing and constant presence with his people. This presence began in the remote past with God’s choice of Abraham, it continues into the present with God’s intention to save the people, and it will continue into the future with God leading them to a new land. God’s mysterious name revealed to Moses means that God founded his people, and he will remain with them forever. This understanding of the meaning of God’s name finds its symbolic confirmation in the burning bush. A normal bush would burn up very quickly. The bush in Moses’ vision burns continuously, just as God presence with his people is constant and never ending.
For Moses, this encounter with God meant the end of his time in the spiritual wilderness. This nomadic shepherd who was once ignorant of his roots and history, now knows his God and his life goal. From now on, Moses will serve God’s salvific purposes for his people which were laid down in a distant past and stretch far into the future.
The second reading comes from Paul’s instruction to his troublesome community in Corinth. Paul addresses the issue of Christians consuming food which had been offered to idols in pagan temples. Some Corinthians insisted on their right to consume such cheaply and widely available food because they “had knowledge” that no other god exists (1 Cor 8:4-6). Others, however, were scandalized by such behaviour, considering it an act of idolatry. This brought divisions and tensions to the community. Paul agreed that food offered to idols can be eaten because such idols are not real gods. However, he insisted that all should abstain from such food in order not to scandalize some hesitant Christians and to maintain the unity in the community (cf. 1 Cor 8:7-12; 10:23-30).
To further strengthen his argument, Paul issued a severe warning about the dangers of idolatry, using the example of the Israelites who took part in the Exodus from Egypt. These Israelites saw God’s mighty deeds, miraculously passed through the sea, and were fed with manna from heaven and drank the water from a rock. Still, they fell into rebellion and idolatry, resulting in God’s rejection of that particular generation which perished in the desert. Paul sets these events as “examples” for the Corinthians. They also “passed through the water” in baptism, and partook regularly of the “spiritual food and drink” in the Eucharistic meals. Still, this is no guarantee that they are safe from falling into idolatry. In fact, the Corinthians already resemble the Israelites who “murmured” dissatisfied with the desert life and diet, because they murmur unhappy about Paul’s calls for abstinence from the food offered to idols.
Through these reminders Paul warned his overconfident Corinthians that careless partaking in the food offered to idols puts them in danger of falling back into idolatry. Before their conversion, they were in the “spiritual wilderness”, believing in numerous gods and participating in pagan feasts and rituals. They had been led out of that wilderness through the gift of faith in the one true God. They must now carefully safeguard this gift by staying away from all forms of idolatry, lest they may be tempted to return to it.
The Gospel reading begins by describing two random and tragic events. The first was a massacre of some innocent Galilean pilgrims by Pontius Pilate. The second was a sudden collapse of the Siloam tower in Jerusalem, which killed eighteen bystanders. All these victims were ordinary people who died unexpectedly, unprepared for death. The second part of the passage contains the story of a barren fig tree threatened with destruction by its owner. The gardener, who represents Jesus, pleads with the owner to give the tree one last chance to bear fruit, and then spares no effort to help the fig tree to produce the desired fruit.
The combination of these stories creates a clear message directed particularly at those who witnessed Jesus’ ministry, heard his words, saw his deeds, and yet remained undecided as to whether to believe in him or not. They lived in the “spiritual wilderness” of indecision, which means being unprepared for death, just like the Galilean pilgrims and the bystanders in Jerusalem. It means being barren as the fig tree in Jesus’ story. The way out of the spiritual wilderness is to bear fruit for God through repentance which means accepting and following Jesus as God’s Messiah. And such repentance cannot be postponed.
Today’s liturgy shows some examples of moving out of the spiritual wilderness. Moses was led out of his wilderness of ignorance by God’s self-revelation. The Corinthians were brought out of the wilderness of idolatry by the gift of faith in Christ, and the gift of a Christian community. Many of those who saw and heard Jesus remined in the spiritual wilderness of indecision. Jesus warned against remaining in such a state, insisting on repentance as a way to bear fruit for God, and being prepared to face God whenever death comes. Those who make their way out of the spiritual wilderness can truly rejoice with the Psalmist and confidently say, “Bless the Lord, O my soul, and all that is within me, bless his holy name.”
Critics of religion often ask piercing questions as they make reference to some events of world history: Where was God when the World Trade Center was destroyed and many killed? Where was God when the Nazis spearheaded the holocaust of countless Jews? Where was God when some Africans were sent as slaves to America and the Caribbean? Where was God when some Galileans had their blood mingled with their sacrifices by Pilate? We often ask the same questions on a very personal level. Where was God when my parent died? Where was God when I was abused or left alone in a desperate situation? Where was God when…Where was God when…?
There is a time of wilderness in every epoch of human history both on the individual and communal levels. It is often characterised by emptiness and a feeling of abandonment. It is a period of searching for answers and solutions. In that momentary period of darkness, a spark of divine fire emerges, often in unlikely places and persons, and God speaks. A heart-warming answer to all the questions above is captured in our First Reading. God said to Moses: “I have seen the misery of my people…” God saw the misery of the Israelites in Egypt and sent Moses on a rescue mission. Although he himself was going through his own spiritual wilderness, Moses had to step out in faith and carry out the mission. In so doing, he was led out of his wilderness. God sees every misery and choses to act by raising up people of faith in every generation to respond to the crisis that stares at them.
It took people of faith to bring relief and support to the victims of the World Trade Center. It took people of faith to initiate actions to halt the atrocities being meted out to Jews by the Nazis. It took people of faith to bring the slave trade to an end. I was led out of my misery by an unexpected helpful gesture of a stranger or a community I joined. It takes people of faith to transform this world.
One of the fundamental characteristics of a person of faith is repentance. True repentance shows forth in good works of faith. With the aid of the parable of a fig tree, Jesus challenges us to give evidence of repentance. To repent is to accept God’s rescue plan of salvation. He so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whosoever would believe in him would not perish (cf. Jn 3:16). Jesus Christ is the embodiment of God’s rescue plan for every human being. Therefore, unless we repent and believe in him, and we show it by our good works that help to save the world even on a smallest scale, we have no reason or right to question where God was when the world was drowning in misery.
It is true that there are many dark spots in our world. However, there is a saying that “it is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness.” When we repent and place our faith in Jesus we light a candle of faith that wards off the darkness in our hearts and the world.