A time for mercy

Illustration by Mark Bartholomew

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We're in the middle of Lent, our unique catholic (i.e., universal) retreat time. For 40 days, the entire church, from the greatest to the least, is called to take a look at how our life reflects what we believe about God. Beware: This retreat is not a time of rest. Today's readings call us to focus on the fact that now is the only time we have to live the call of this Jubilee Year of Mercy.

CEL_02282016.jpgWe begin this contemplation standing with Moses, who hears God speak from the blazing bush. As Moses stands barefoot in the desert, God introduces Self (no hint of divine gender here) as the great I AM.

Third Sunday of Lent
Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15
Psalm 103
1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12
Luke 13:1-9

When we want to know what that means, we hear God explain, "I am the God of your ancestors, the God who watches over the afflicted, who hears their cries, who feels their suffering and who sends you to rescue them."

It's easy to understand why Moses hid his face. It wasn't just the wonder of the celestial sound-and-light show but the mission he received. Moses' first theological lesson was that there's no knowing God without repercussions.

What's more (reader take heed), this God is a real attention-getter, apt to use all kinds of mysterious signs to get noticed and then hand off the mission of divine mercy. This is one of the connections between Moses' story and today's Gospel, where Jesus warned the crowd that they'd better bear fruit, rather than just stand around making facile assumptions about God.

That crowd telling Jesus about Pilate's bloody tyranny differed from us primarily in terms of technology. While we have CNN, Facebook and Twitter to keep us abreast of every horrific happening, the ancient crowd had to rely on witnesses and scandalmongers. Still, for them as for us, those reporting the news are the ones who decide what story to spread and how to frame it to convey the message they want to deliver.

Luke's account begins with the unidentified crowd relishing rumors about Pilate's barbarities in Galilee. "What a great story to tell Jesus! Let's hear what he thinks of it. Surely, he'll recognize the avenging hand of God there. Thank heavens we're not like those people."

Obviously this crowd hadn't been following Jesus, a conclusion we reach not because they were out of line -- which they were -- but because they didn't know what a bad idea it was to expose their self-righteousness so blatantly when talking to Jesus.

Jesus' first response was to undermine their judgmental attitude by asking them to question why those particular Galileans and no others deserved such suffering. He clearly didn't buy the idea that they were the worst of the lot.

Then, as was his wont, Jesus offered a counterexample. If they could interpret Pilate's cruelty as the just punishment due to special sinners from Galilee (an inconsequential region that just happened to be his place of origin), what about the tower that toppled on people in the capital city? Were those victims the most uniquely deserving of divine vengeance among all the residents of Jerusalem?

Jesus' answer was clear and two-pronged. "No! Don't think you've found God's hand at work through a despot or accidents from faulty construction. Rather than assume guilt and divine retribution, take a look at yourselves. What if Pilate came after you or the walls fell in right now?"

That's where the parable of the gardener who wanted to revivify the fig tree comes in. The gardener plays the role of Jesus and the prophets in saying, "Don't end up like this. Let me shake you out of your lethargy. I'll do anything I must to wake you up, even if you think it stinks! But beware. You don't have forever."

Jesus reframed the crowd's reading of events. While they were fixed on accusations of sin, Jesus was calling for people to bear fruit.

While the crowd assumed that God is on watch for wrongdoing, Jesus spoke in the name of the God of Moses, who seeks collaborators to put divine mercy into practice (refer to the above list of works of compassion spoken by the very mouth of God). The crowd focused on transgressions committed, and he on uncultivated potential. Jesus turned the tragic tales upside down.

Lent calls us to reflect on our life of faith: what we believe about God and how our daily activities express our creed.

Today's readings invite us to consider how we interpret the events of our day. First, we're warned against facile judgments. Far more importantly, we're called to notice the fires God sets to draw our attention to the world's need for the fruits of mercy.

[Mary M. McGlone is a Sister of St. Joseph of Carondelet. She is a freelance writer and executive director of FUVIRESE USA.]

A version of this story appeared in the Feb 12-25, 2016 print issue under the headline: A time for mercy.

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