Gospel Reflection for March 20, 2022, Third Sunday of Lent

The First Reading reveals God as a merciful and compassionate Father who heeded the cry of the enslaved Hebrews. God has already chosen one from among them forth to freedom, and to lead them to the Promised Land. From the very beginning Moses was set aside to be the messenger of God to the people, to be their rescuer, and to form them into a nation. Yet, nothing in his ordinary life prepared him for the mission. A refugee from Egypt, Moses reluctantly returns to Egypt after the prompting of God. Moses, though he experienced God in ways never seen before or since, always remained reluctant to follow the path the Lord had sent him to accomplish.

For Moses, this was no easy task. The people were slow to accept Moses and they often seem to resent him and being rescued from their lives of bondage in Egypt. Yet, God’s mercy is unwavering, even as he needs to chastise them along the way.

Like Paul, the apostle, Moses stands outside of the tradition of which he becomes one of the most important figures. Moses, though born a Hebrew was not raised as one, nor was he familiar with the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Although a Jew, Saul had rejected the teaching of Jesus and persecuted the Church, before his acceptance of the Gospel and transformation to Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles.

God reveals himself to Moses in the burning bush as God of mercy and compassion. This sense of mercy and compassion remain as principal ways to understand God throughout the course of Jewish history. However, this mercy and compassion are seen over the long time – God’s time – not necessarily our time.

Several people confronted Jesus with news of the hellacious murder of some Galilean Jews. While they were looking for Jesus to rebuke those who had been killed and assert that they deserved their fate due to their sins, Jesus turns the table on them. Instead, he rebukes those who brought the news for their own lack of mercy, compassion, and their desire to being vengeance on others. Jesus reminds them that they will die in their sins if they do not repent and transform their lives.

Jesus then tells a parable of a man who owns an orchard which included one unproductive fig tree. After three years he orders it to be cut down, but the gardener asks him to let it stand for another year while he tends to it to see if he can get it to produce figs.

The desire to cut down the fig tree that has been unproductive is the same desire that we have to act in ways that are harsh, judgmental and final with the people and situations in our own lives.

Our quest for justice often comes at the sacrifice of mercy and compassion and ends up looking more like vengeance than it does justice. With our limited world view and understanding of others, it is difficult to always know the best way to handle difficult people or the difficult situations in our lives. Generally, we go for what is easiest or the least threatening for ourselves. For many this means “sucking it up” and allowing ourselves to be taken advantage of. Often this then builds up leading to an outburst which only makes the situation worse. All too often we end up regretting our reactions.

Moses, Jesus and Paul each offer us an insight into the way in which we ought to handle the most difficult situations in life – to act with mercy and compassion. These are probably the two most difficult demands of Christian discipleship. Yet, these are the fundamental attributes of God in the Old and New Testaments. While some of us read the Old Testament and think of God as angry and harsh, the same texts remind us over and over again of God’s mercy and compassion.

While it can be hard to be merciful and compassionate, it can even be more challenging to accept the mercy and compassion of another. This is usually reflected in our inability to accept the possibility of God’s mercy and compassion in our own lives.

None of us will achieve perfect mercy and compassion, and many of us might wish it is a task that we did not take up. None of us wants to be the proverbial fig tree that is cut down before it has a chance to produce, yet how often do are we quick to hew the fig trees in our own lives?

Father Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.