God calls us to change our ways

  • February 26, 2010
Third Sunday of Lent (Year C) March 7 (Exodus 3:1-8, 13-15; Psalm 103; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12; Luke 13:1-9)

Many of God’s manifestations in the midst of everyday life are quiet and subtle. But sometimes they are anything but subtle — in fact, they can be dramatic, awe-inspiring and even a bit frightening.

God’s manifestation in the burning bush epitomizes this latter type of experience, so much so that the “burning bush” is well-embedded in our cultural language as a symbol of something that is unforgettable and life-altering.

God’s appearance comes in the midst of Moses’ ordinary life. He is minding his own business and totally unprepared for the world-altering events that are about to unfold. The first command to Moses is to keep his distance and remove his sandals. In keeping with the ancient world’s understanding of the divine and transcendent any dealings with divine powers must be accompanied by hyper-purity and religious awe. After all, encountering the holy and transcendent could be a risky undertaking: the human and divine do not co-exist well in close proximity.

God identifies Himself as the same God who spoke to the patriarchal ancestors of Moses. In order to fulfill the promise made to Abraham God is going to rescue the people of Israel from bondage in Egypt and lead them to a rich and prosperous land of their own. Moses is too frightened to even look at God, but later in the Exodus story he will be speaking face-to-face with God as if to a friend. Moses asks what seems to be a perfectly logical question: who are you? After all, he is to proclaim divine liberation to a people who have been dwelling in Egypt for centuries and who have grown accustomed to slavery. What name or authority is he to invoke to accomplish this seemingly impossible mission?

God’s answer is ambiguous and evasive. “I am who am” and “I am” are more powerful for what they refuse to say. God will not be named; God will not be defined; and most of all, God will not be manipulated or controlled. All of these are dangers when we presume to define, name, claim or analyse God. It is clear that the liberation from Egypt will be completely God’s doing, because Moses has very little if anything of his own to offer to the undertaking. He will merely be the instrument in God’s hand.

Did God strike thousands of people down in the wilderness? Very unlikely, but an ancient way of interpreting reality ascribes all things — good and bad — to the hand of God. Paul’s exegesis of Scripture is a bit murky and shaky, but the point that he is making is certainly valid. He points out that the status of the Israelites as the people of God did not protect them from the consequences of their actions. Likewise the community in Corinth should not think that they are immune from punishment. Belonging to the “community of the elect or saved” is never a free pass or an insurance policy. If anything, it should be a call to a higher standard.

Disaster, suffering and death are firmly linked in the minds of many. The parade of misery and tragedy raise questions of sin. Who is responsible? What are they being punished for? Jesus sweeps away the usual judgments as He draws attention to a massacre at the hands of Pilate and a local construction accident. Those killed were no worse than anyone else, Jesus insists. Don’t think that God was dealing out some sort of retribution. But then there is a curious statement: unless you all repent a similar fate awaits you. It seems contradictory, but He is using this situation as a means of shocking them out of some negative behaviour patterns of their own.

This was written towards the end of the first century after the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple, which many believe to be divine retribution. Luke is insisting that the people had been warned. Today we would probably say that it was the tragic outcome of an unwise and reckless uprising against a brutal and oppressive empire rather than the hand of God.

The parable of the fig tree that Jesus relates is an example of God’s patience and constant encouragement to come to our senses and change our course. An honest and rigourous moral and spiritual self-examination would prevent so many human tragedies.

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