In the Sunday readings for this year’s Lenten journey, the Church gives us some snapshots from St. Luke’s narrative of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem. In today’s Gospel, Jesus is told about some Galileans who suffered a tragic death at the hands of Pontius Pilate. It seems that the question in the minds of those who tell Jesus about this was whether the victims deserved to suffer this awful fate. Behind the question is a common Jewish interpretation of some Old Testament passages. In the Book of Deuteronomy, for example, Moses tells the people that faithfulness to the Law will bring blessings and prosperity (cf. Dt 28:1-14), while unfaithfulness to the Law will bring curses and misfortune (cf. Dt 28:15ff). The massacre of the Galileans, then, seems to imply that the victims were sinners, and their unfaithfulness was the reason for their tragic death. Jesus explicitly rejects this fatalistic, punitive interpretation.
Moses’ role in God’s plan did not begin with giving lists of blessings and curses. Rather, his call to lead the people of God out of slavery arose from his personal encounter with God, recounted in today’s reading from the Book of Exodus. Once God gets Moses’ attention by means of the “remarkable sight” of the burning bush, he reveals to him something much more remarkable: that he loves his people. God knows all that his people are suffering; he has heard their cries; he will rescue them from Egypt; and he will lead them into “a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey.” When Moses dares to ask, indirectly, the name of God, God replies with a remarkable yet mysterious revelation of himself: “I Am Who Am.”
We learn from Moses’ encounter with God that God sees his relationship with his people as a covenant of love. He is not merely a threatening lawgiver, looking for opportunities to punish. He wants to save his people and give them freedom. This understanding helps us interpret today’s Gospel. Jesus’ repeated call to repentance flows from God’s covenant love for his people. It is as if he were saying to us, “If you do not repent, you will all perish as they did – and I don’t want that to happen!” He calls us to a change of heart, not to mere compliance with rules. It is a change of heart that recognizes that we belong to God and so we owe him due reverence and faithfulness. It is a change of heart that moves us to show compassion towards others.
To make his exhortation more concrete, Jesus offers a parable about a barren fig tree. The tree represents us all, and Jesus himself is the gardener. He shows that he is advocating for us to the orchard owner, the Father. Agricultural work involves back-breaking toil (cf. Gen 3:17). The ground must be cultivated and fertilized; parasites and weeds that threaten the plants need to be kept in check. Then the gardener patiently waits, hoping that all his hard work will yield fruit (cf. Mk 4:28). Jesus willingly takes on all this long, hard labor for us. It represents his part of the covenant; he mediates for us and works to save us. And his labor will indeed raise a tree that bears good fruit, the Cross, which we will venerate in a few weeks’ time. Jesus’ labor of love is a sign of a new covenant.
Love is rightly met with love; the covenant calls for our willing cooperation. We too must take on the work of bearing fruit, a work that is enhanced and improved through our Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. These are concrete and practical means to deepen our covenant of love with the Lord and to welcome his grace so that we bear the fruit he seeks. Through prayer, we open space in our hearts to become “holy ground” where we give due reverence to the presence of God. Through fasting, we shift the attention of our hearts from an excessive focus on ourselves and our cravings towards a purer, joyful focus on God. Through almsgiving, we incarnate our love for our neighbors. Through our prayerful walking along the Way of the Cross, we are grafted onto that most fruitful tree that is lovingly tended by Jesus and that pleases the Father.
As we discover the deeper meaning of our Lenten practices, we are moved to do them with greater vigilance and love. St. Paul exhorts us in the second reading not to assume that we are “standing secure” simply because we are doing the same rituals as everyone else. Instead, we should “take care not to fall.” All the Israelites passed through the Red Sea, but that was no guarantee that they would enter the Promised Land. All of us have been baptized and are journeying through the season of Lent, but that is no guarantee that we are changing our hearts. A covenant of love cannot be lived by the lazy or indifferent. Love moves us to commit ourselves to prayer, fasting and almsgiving; and it is through love that we persevere.
It can happen that we experience some fear that these Lenten penitential practices will leave us impoverished or famished. Won’t my setting aside time for prayer prevent me from doing other productive activities? Won’t my almsgiving use up financial resources that I could use for the things I need? Why should I subject myself to hunger pangs? When we expose these fears to the Lord, he shows us that they are shallow. Let us not forget that he is the “I AM” who has chosen us personally and who sends us forth. Do we really think that if we give up time and resources for him he will leave us deprived of anything we need? No, “The Lord is kind and merciful”! This is clearly a situation of “nothing to lose but everything to gain.” So, what are we waiting for? Let us listen to our Lord, who says to us: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”
How do I live my life as one who belongs to God and God belonging in me? What parts of me need to be tilled and fertilized? How committed am I to prayer, fasting and almsgiving, especially this Lent?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 18, no. 3. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.