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3rd Sunday of Lent

March 24, 2019

Fr. Joseph Jacobi


The people asking Jesus questions in today’s Gospel have an image of God as a vengeful, punishing God.

That group from Galilee must have been terrible sinners for God to punish them in that massacre in the temple. Those who died from that tower tumbling down upon them surely had it coming because of some terrible sins they committed.

Jesus reply not only forces those asking questions to remember the shortness of their own lives and the limited time for repentance from sin, but also invites them to metanioa, a more meaningful repentance—to change the way they think about God. Those massacred in the temple were killed by Pilate, not by God. Those whose life was crushed out of them died by accident, not by God’s hand. God did not push the tower over upon them, but it tumbled down because man did a poor job building it.

The God Jesus reveals is not a vengeful God who punishes terrible sinners. Rather, all of us are sinners, and all of us need to change the way we think about God. All of us need to repent, to experience metanioa. All of us need to come to know the God who the Psalmist sings of today, a “God who is slow to anger, and abounding in kindness.”

But some of us struggle to let go of a false image of a God who is out to get us, for when an accident happens or tragedy strikes or sickness invades our bodies, we cry: “O God, what have I done to deserve this?!?”

Jesus constantly communicates by word and deed this message: “The Lord is kind and merciful. The Lord is kind and merciful.”

So, in the parable, Jesus is the patient gardener who sees the possibility of new life where others see only death. Others see failure, Jesus sees potential for success. Others see barrenness, he sees the hidden capacity for producing fruit. So Jesus will cultivate and fertilize.

Jesus fully understands the human condition: that you can work and work and things fall apart. You do your best day after day and things collapse in an instant. You give something your last best effort, and see it all fail in spite of trying so hard.

As the divine gardener, Jesus is not suggesting we take our time or do nothing at all, but rather cooperate with the working of grace. Jesus constantly cultivates our lives, even during times of collapse, and fertilizes our lives, even during times of failure. He can bring the green buds of new life from the barren branches of our life. Remember that as the Risen Lord, Jesus was mistaken by Mary Magdalene as the gardener on the day of His Resurrection, and he continues to work the soil of our lives even when we do not realize he is doing so.

Today’s parable helps us live in the midst of human shortcomings, sinfulness, and inadequacies and not be cut down by despair, because Jesus will continue to work with us. For He is Mercy Enfleshed. Mercy is Jesus’ middle name: “Jesus Mercy Christ.” He comes to reveal the God of mercy, the God who IS MERCY!

Moses comes to know the God who is Mercy by God’s call to set His people free. For God’s call of Moses through the burning bush is an unlikely call of an unworthy person. Remember, Moses had fled Egypt because he had murdered an Egyptian taskmaster who was beating a Hebrew slave.

God had prepared Moses from the beginning of his life to be the instrument to set God’s people free from slavery in Egypt— when the daughter of Pharoah found him as a babe in the basket in the river, and raised him as a prince of the royal court in Egypt, where he could have used his power to help his enslaved Hebrew kin. But Moses seems to ruin everything in one moment of white-hot murderous anger. So, Moses is in exile in the country of Midian, a complete failure. But he is the one God calls to go back to Egypt to set the Hebrew free from slavery. Moses is given another chance by God. He is sent back to a place where he experienced failure and the falling apart of his world, a fugitive from Pharoah who will courageously confront Pharaoh and set his people free.

Then Moses will return with the Hebrew slaves now freed to this same mountain where he received God’s merciful call, the Mt. of Horeb, also called Mt. Sinai, to receive a powerful sign of God’s mercy— the 10 Commandments.

Remember, though, what happened the 1st time Moses was given the 10 commandments, inscribed on 2 stone tablets? He comes down the mountain only to find that in his absence the people have made a golden calf and are worshipping this lifeless object. In his anger, he smashes the 2 tables with the 10 commandments to smithereens.

He later returns to the top of Mt. Horeb, with 2 newly fashioned stone tablets, to receive the 10 commandments again. In this encounter with God, God passes by Moses and God cries out: “The Lord, the Lord, a merciful and gracious God, slow to anger and rich in kindness and fidelity….” (Exodus 34:6)

The people of Israel, like Moses, are given a 2nd chance, a 2nd set of the 10 commandments.

This faithful God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, is on the move with the people, acting with mercy, loving and loving some more. This is who God is! The God beyond our understanding who cannot be confined by our understanding of mercy, nor limited by our understanding of love. He is the God of the living who loves us into new life! Who sees us in our suffering, who hears our cries for help!

This message of mercy, lifting us up from the desert of discouragement, will be poured like living water into our lives in the Gospel passages for the upcoming Sundays of Lent.

In the the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which is really the Parable of the Merciful Father, who seeks out and finds both of his wayward sons.

Then there is the woman caught in adultery who deserves death but who Jesus saves from a murderous mob of men.

Then on Palm Sunday we will hear Jesus from the cross speak merciful words to a dying criminal, who begs Jesus to remember him when He comes into His Kingdom. Jesus assures him:“This day you will be with me in paradise.” As we stand in the bright shadow of the cross and gaze upon the broken body of the Son of God, we realize what Mercy looks like. Not just what Mercy is, but what Mercy looks like. Jesus, without speaking a word from the cross, shouts out: “I will die in your place so you might live. You, who deserve to die because of your sins, will instead receive the gift of life.” This is what Mercy looks like!