As we continue through Lent, the focus in our readings this week shifts from the covenant God made with Abraham, which we heard about last week, to the covenant with Moses, which we hear about this week. Moses’ life had lots of ups and downs. He was born to an Israelite woman, and so by a decree of pharaoh, he should have been killed at birth. But instead his mother put him in a basket which she set sail in the Nile River where, lo and behold, he was discovered by pharaoh’s daughter, who brought the baby Moses back to his own mother to care for him. And Moses grew up in pharaoh’s court and no doubt would have risen to great prominence, if it weren’t for his quick temper. When he saw a fellow Israelite being mistreated by an Egyptian, he killed the Egyptian, and had to flee to the desert to protect his life. He became a shepherd, one of the lowliest jobs in Egypt, and it is at this stage in his life when he has the incredible encounter with the Lord in the burning bush. In this encounter, the Lord promises Moses that he will free his people from their slavery in Egypt. This of course is the fulfillment of the promise the Lord had made hundreds of years before to Abraham.
And then in our second reading from St. Paul, we hear a kind of summary and what happened next to Moses and the Israelites. During their forty years in the desert, God took care of the Israelites and provided for them, but again and again they forgot about what he had done for them and grumbled against him. So, St. Paul gives us a warning here: he warns us not to be like them saying, “These things…have been written down as a warning to us upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.”
This leads us into our Gospel reading from St. Luke. Jesus makes reference to a couple events about which the people of his time would have been familiar: one is a massacre of Jews in the temple in Jerusalem which had been ordered by Pontius Pilate. This is of course the same Pontius Pilate who later condemns Jesus to death. And the other incident is the collapse of a tower which killed 18 Jews.
Jesus counters a belief that was common at the time and that is somewhat common even now, that if something bad befalls a person, it is a punishment from God for that person’s sins. This is kind of like the Hindu concept of karma: that if you do something evil, it’s going to come back to haunt you. Or sometimes we modify it a little: if something that’s too good happens to us, we’re going to “pay for it later”. As in: during those weeks in January when it was mild and dry, there was this sense: “This weather is too good. We’re going to pay for this!” OK, that did happen! But this is not a Christian belief! But that kind of thinking persists. For example, let’s say a person falls gravely ill, or a series of bad things happen to that person; it’s not uncommon to think that we are being punished by God. This is not the case. Let me clarify: if we repent and are sorry for any sins we have committed, God forgives us.
But there is a saying: God always forgives, man sometimes forgives, nature never forgives. So it is true that our sins sometimes – oftentimes – do have consequences that we have to live with. If you have betrayed someone’s trust, if you repent of the sin, God will forgive you. But even after God has forgiven you, you still have to live with the consequences of that betrayal of trust: the person you have betrayed will find it hard to trust you, and you will have to rebuild that trust, which can take a lot of time and effort. Or if you choose to indulge too much in alcohol or take drugs, if you ask the Lord for forgiveness, you will be forgiven. But even after God forgives you, you might have to deal with the consequences of those sins: you might have an addiction that you will have to battle. God always forgives; man sometimes forgives; nature never forgives.
But back to the Gospel: Jesus makes it clear that the people killed by Pontius Pilate or the ones who died when the tower collapsed are not being punished by God for their sins. They were no worse or better than anyone else. They were just in the wrong place at the wrong time.
But Jesus gives us a warning here; he tells us something that we all know to be true but don’t like to hear because it makes us uncomfortable. One day, our number will be up. There will come a day on this earth for each one of us that will be our last. We do what we can to avoid it; we do what we can to ensure that we have the longest life possible. We hear that eggs are good for us, so we eat more. We hear that they’re bad for us, so we eat less. We try to exercise. We take vitamins; we take pills. That’s all well and good. But sooner or later, it will be time to go, no matter how good our diet has been, no matter how many times we’ve been to the doctor.
Jesus gives us this warning by way of a parable: the one about a man who planted a fig tree and kept checking it for fruit. For three years, he checked it. But it did not bear fruit. He wanted to cut it down, but his gardener urged him to give it more time. The gardener promises to cultivate it and fertilize it in the hopes that it will bear fruit within a year. If it does not, then the owner of the orchard can cut it down.
That fig tree represents each one of us. The Lord has planted us here on earth, if you will, for a time. And he desires that we all bear fruit during this time on earth. Jesus is the gardener who cultivates and fertilizes the tree. Jesus tends to us, nourishing us with spiritual food in prayer and in the sacraments, nourishing us with his grace. Let’s be clear: Jesus does most of the work! But we do have a role to play here. We are not meant to just absorb the nutrients; we also have to bear fruit!
So what does that mean? How do we bear fruit? Bearing fruit means growing in holiness: becoming more and more like Christ, conforming our will to the will of the Father. It means surrendering our agenda, however important or noble it might be, and accepting the Father’s agenda. Think of the fruits of the Holy Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. If we are growing in them, then we are bearing fruit. It doesn’t mean that we have to be perfect immediately, but we all ought to constantly seek to make progress.
And we do not have forever. We should not procrastinate when it comes to following the Lord, because none of us know how long we have. God has given us this one life, and we have the choice: to drift through life, letting our whims and our physical desires carry us along from one thing to the next – this is the tree that does not bear fruit. Or we can actively strive to follow the Lord, to repent of our sins, to receive the spiritual gifts he desires to give us, to live for others rather than for ourselves. This is the tree that bears fruit. If Jesus’ words make us uncomfortable or even a little fearful, then let that discomfort spur us into taking action. But Jesus does not want us to live in fear, dreading the end, wondering when or how it will come. Rather, he wants us to bear fruit, and we do that by remaining close to him, our divine gardener. And we have nothing to fear if we continue to strive to follow Jesus.