24 March 2019
Exodus 3.1-8, 13-15
1 Cor 10.1-6, 10-12
Some time ago a woman said to her friend that she felt God was punishing her for past actions. She had undergone an abortion and also an extra-marital affair as well as having stolen some money. Six months earlier her husband was tragically killed in a car accident and a few months previous to that her only son died after a short illness due to cancer. She was convinced that God was now taking revenge by punishing her for these past sins.
Sad to say there are many Christians as well as people of other religions who believe this. It is certainly a very false understanding of who God is. We usually see Lent as a time of penance, with the focus on fasting, which can indeed be helpful. But it is better to view it as a call to repentance as Jesus does in today’s gospel. The real meaning of this word ‘repentance’ is not so much a turning away from sin to virtue or going from bad to good. It is much more correct to see it, as the gospels tell us today, as a ‘new way of looking at who God is, at life, at reality’. The gospels – the Good News of Jesus – were given to us to free us from a narrow and oppressive view of sin and its consequences. And especially to come to know God as Jesus revealed him [a loving God], not a false idea of God as the woman in the story had.
The two events that Jesus uses in today’s gospel underline an important aspect of his message: there are no connections between sin and the misfortunes that may happen to us, whether their cause is human (Pilate, Luke 13.1) or accidental (verse 4). By this statement Jesus goes against a very common concept of his time and perhaps ours also according to which diseases, misfortune and poverty are the consequences of sins committed by people in those situations. Thus, in addition to their harsh lives, the poor and sick are burdened by a painful sense of guilt. Sin carries its own inbuilt punishment; it is not of God’s doing.
The Good News is that Jesus came to free us from all the things that enslave us, like concepts such as this. Thinking like this can prevent us from facing the real causes of poverty and other evils by attributing them to some type of fatalism – that we are totally at the mercy of events and cannot do anything to overcome our situation. This is like the statement ones hears from some fundamentalist groups: ‘the devil caused me to steal or commit adultery etc. What a wonderful escape route for me instead of accepting my responsibility for my sin!! These attitudes also present erroneous images of the God of love and life.
Putting it very clearly, sinning is a failure to bear fruit according to our talents and possibilities, as Jesus states in the little parable that follows (v. 6-9). God is waiting for our good deeds and is very patient. Jesus in fact turns the question around by asking another of his hearers. “Is the real miracle not so much about those who have been struck down but rather that you have escaped?” So he follows this by the little parable describing God’s incredible patience which passes all understanding. God keeps on coming into our lives looking for fruit and when he doesn’t find any he keeps on giving us more opportunities and time. As St. Peter says, “Think of God’s patience as your opportunity to be saved.”
In the second reading St. Paul gives us an important principle for interpreting the Old Testament: what is narrated here is not merely something belonging to the past: instead it conveys a message for us now. The first reading from the Book of Exodus describes the moment when God entrusts Moses with the liberation of his people. God gives him that mission because he heard the cry of his oppressed people enslaved in Egypt and he wants to lead them into the freedom of the Promised Land where they can build a just society.
God is revealing himself as being with us in our struggles, in our pain. He is not the God who punishes, rather he does everything to help us to be free, most especially in using humans like Moses, like you and me to bring about his reign here on earth, a reign of justice, love and peace.
If then we see repentance as a call to look at life and others as God, as Jesus does will we not be amazed that God is totally on our side, especially in times of tragedy and suffering? He asks us to bear fruit by focusing ourselves on how best to help others to have a better life, a life unburdened from guilt and whatever materially, spiritually or psychologically still keeps us enslaved, keeps us unfree.
“Lord Jesus, help us repent in the sense you ask us to. Open our eyes to come to know God, your Father and ours too, as God really is –a God whose last desire is to punish us. Rather help us accept him totally as a father who seeks, by using others and us to free people from all that enslaves them. Jesus, Emmanuel, the God who is always with us and for us, increase our faith, our trust in this total reality. Amen”
Fr. Jim Kirstein, SMA