St. Luke describes an episode in which “some people” who were among the crowds following Jesus were eager to tell Him about two tragic current events. Pilate, probably in putting down an attempt at insurrection by zealots in Galilee, mingled the blood of the guilty “with the blood of their sacrifices.” In another incident, a “tower at Siloam” collapsed, killing eighteen people. By the way Jesus responds to the reports of these events, we sense that those who conveyed the news interpreted it as God’s judgment on awful sinners. Perhaps they were implicitly suggesting that such terrible calamity meant that those who died must have deserved what they got. By the same logic, of course, those who were not experiencing that kind of punishment were righteous people, not sinners deserving judgment. We can see that Jesus stopped this in its tracks: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means!” He repeated His question (and His own answer) for emphasis in describing the victims of the collapsed tower. Then, He said something that must have shocked those who were very busy taking an inventory of the sins of others: “But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” What did Jesus mean?
Happily, Jesus explains His meaning in a parable. The “fig tree” is Israel, God’s beloved chosen people (see Jer 8:13; Hos 9:10). Jesus was among His own for three years, proving in every possible way that He was the Messiah, God’s own Son, for Whom they longed. The hard-hearted did not bear the “fruit” of faith in Him. He preached a Gospel of repentance, and they did not believe they needed it (unlike the Galileans and tower victims, whom they were certain did). In the parable, the owner of the orchard (God) declares that, after three years of finding no fruit on the fig tree, it should be cut down. The gardener (recall that on Resurrection Day, Mary Magdalene mistook Jesus for the gardener; see Jn 20:15), however, suggests one more year of cultivating and fertilizing because “it may bear fruit in the future.” There was still hope! In fact, after Jesus was rejected, crucified, and resurrected, the Jews had one whole generation (forty years) to believe the preaching of the apostles about Jesus. Although many Jews did believe and convert to Christianity, the religious leaders hardened their hearts in opposition and drove the apostles out, attempting in every way they could to silence them. Eventually, this utter rejection of Jesus led to judgment on Judah (see Lk 19:41-44; 20:9-19; 21:6). In 70 A.D., the Romans entered Jerusalem, destroyed the Temple, and left the city in ruins.
When Jesus answered the stories people wanted to tell Him about the sins of others with a firm exhortation to repent, He gave us an important and helpful warning about our own lives. Our work in Lent is to judge if we are fruit-bearing, not to do inventory on the fruit of other trees. If we, like “some people” in the Gospel story think we don’t need to repent, we put ourselves immediately at the top of the list of people who do. What marks us as people who think we don’t need repentance? Jesus makes it clear—if we are busy telling Him about all the people who do.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, I know it’s easier for me to find the sin of others than my own. Help me keep my focus where it needs to be this Lent.
First Reading (Read Ex 3:1-8a; 13-15)
The episode of God speaking to Moses in the burning bush is an excellent lesson in humility and repentance for us. When Moses saw the bush aflame and yet not being consumed, he was full of curiosity: “I must go over to look at this remarkable sight, and see why the bush is not burned.” He saw something that was outside the laws of nature, and he drew near to understand it better. In Jesus, God became flesh and blood to dwell among His people. He performed many wonders that were outside the laws of nature. He wanted His people to look at Him “more closely,” as Moses did at the burning bush. Those who responded to that call recognized His holiness and their unworthiness (remember when Peter told Jesus to depart from him after the miraculous haul of fish). They repented of their sin, and they found new life. See here that when Moses comes close to the bush, God warns him: “Come no nearer! Remove the sandals from your feet, for the place where you stand is holy ground.” When Moses understood that he was in the presence of God, he “hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.” Remember that Moses was both a murderer and a fugitive from justice. Instantly, when confronted with God’s holiness, he knew his own sin. He repented and did obeisance. Then he was ready for a new mission in his life.
Where do we come into contact with the Presence of God this way? It is in our reception of the sacraments, most especially in the Mass, of course. There, Jesus is present in Sacred Scripture and the Eucharist. This is where we learn about His holiness, our unworthiness, and grace, the gift Jesus came to offer us to bridge the great divide. Just as God came down to deliver His helpless people from their bondage in Egypt, He comes down to deliver us from our bondage to sin. The call to repentance (the first movement of the Mass in the Penitential Rite) is our first step to freedom.
If our need for repentance has become dimmed, either out of indifference, ignorance, or a preoccupation with the sins of others, Lent is a blessed time to start fresh with God. The Sacrament of Reconciliation opens the door to new life for us. Jesus, in the person of the priest, is always ready to hear our repentance and grant us His peace. We become the fig tree that bears good fruit for God.
Possible response: Lord Jesus, help me believe that admitting my unworthiness is the path into Your heart, not an obstacle keeping me away from You.
Psalm (Read Ps 103:1-4, 6-8, 11)
Thinking about our need of repentance and God’s willingness to forgive and restore us, as our readings prompt us, makes us want to declare with the psalmist, “The Lord is kind and merciful.” Those who are willing to acknowledge their sin are promised “pardon for all your iniquities,” and “healing for all your ills.” A simple fear of the Lord (that is, humility which puts Him first in our lives) brings great reward: “For as the heavens are high above the earth, so surpassing is His kindness toward those who fear Him.” Because of this promise, there is only one appropriate response from us: “Bless the Lord, O my soul; and all my being, bless His holy Name.”
Possible response: The psalm is, itself, a response to our other readings. Read it again prayerfully to make it your own.
Second Reading (Read 1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12)
St. Paul, in writing to new Christian converts in Corinth, reminds them that although the people of Israel at the time of the Exodus had a supernatural deliverance from slavery (just as Christians have a supernatural delivery from sin and death), many (really, “most”) of them did not live worthy of their calling, and they were “struck down in the desert.” St. Paul insists that “these things happened as examples for us.” This is sobering. Just because we have been baptized and eat the supernatural food of the Eucharist doesn’t mean we will automatically choose to live our lives with God. This being so, we ought to be very thankful for the season of Lent. We can take seriously Jesus’ call to repentance, Moses’ example of humility in conviction of sin, and St. Paul’s bracing exhortation: “Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.”
Possible response: Lord Jesus, I know that Lent is the time for me to check to see if I think I am “standing secure.” Help me see in truth.