Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. John the Evangelist Parish, Center Moriches, NY
Third Sunday of Lent, Year C
February 28, 2016
Ex 3:1-8.13-15, Ps 103, 1 Cor 10:1-6.10-12, Lk 13:1-9
To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below:
To listen to a second, more extended and developed version of the homily, please click below:
The following text guided the homily:
What Difference Has the Year of Mercy Made?
We are now 83 days into the extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy, which is one of the greatest opportunities in the history of the Church for conversion, for acting on the words Jesus said to each of us through a minister at the beginning of Lent, to “turn away from sin and be faithful to the Gospel.” If we could talk to all the souls in Purgatory, they would be jealous of all of us alive that we have graces available to us this year that were never as available to them. If we could poll those in Hell, they would almost certainly tell us that if they knew during their lifetime what they sadly know now, they would have taken total advantage of the gift we have. This Jubilee of Mercy is a time in which we hear with fresh ears St. Paul’s Ash Wednesday appeal as an ambassador of Christ reminding us that “now is the day of salvation” and calling us to be “reconciled to God.” It’s an occasion for us to heed Pope Francis’ reminder, said four days into his papacy and repeated so often since, that God never tires of forgiving us, but we tire of asking for forgiveness, leading to his prayer that we will never tire of asking for what God never tires to give. This Jubilee is a 349-day period in which, together with the whole Church, we remember in the words of today’s Psalm, that the Lord is “kind and merciful,” pardons all our iniquities, heals all our ills, redeems our life not from peccadillos and trifles but from destruction, and crowns us with his kindness and compassion. It’s a chance for us to ponder how merciful and gracious he is, how slow to anger and overflowing in goodness and come before him to allow him to fill us with his merciful love, press the reset button on our life, bring our soul back to its baptismal splendor and make all of heaven rejoice that we who were wayward and lost have been found, and we who were dead through sin have the chance to experience resurrection through reconciliation.
But we need to ask what difference this special year overflowing in God’s mercy and kindness has made in our life. We know and we rejoice that there are many people who have responded to God’s invitation to recognize their need for God’s mercy and have come to receive it in the Sacrament Jesus the Lamb of God has established to take away our sins. We know and we rejoice that many others, having been filled with God’s forgiving love in this way, have recognized it as a summons to pay it forward, to treat others with similar mercy, making new efforts to carry for others’ bodily and spiritual needs through the corporal and spiritual works of mercy. But we also know with a little sadness and trepidation that there are others, many others, who who are frankly no spiritually different than they were last December 7, the day before this Jubilee began.
The Urgency of Our Conversion
That’s one of the reasons why today’s readings are so important, because they’re meant to shock us out of complacency — almost as defibrillator paddles for our souls — and get us to examine honestly before the Lord whether we have been responding to his kindness and mercy as he desires us to do this year or whether we have been taking this holy year, this season of Lent, and our whole Christian life and calling, in vain.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus speaks to us what are in my opinion his most forceful words of conversion that we hear in the 156-week cycle of the Church’s Sunday liturgical readings. He begins with two tragedies that had captured the attention of the crowds in previous days. Someone asked his opinion about massacre of Galileans by Pontius Pilate in the Temple whose blood had been mixed with the blood of the sacrifices that day. Those pilgrims from Galilee had made the long journey from Galilee to the Temple to pray, but they had gotten caught up in a crowd where some rabble-rousers were protesting Pilate’s decision to raid the coffers of the Temple for funds to build a new water system. When Pilate sent his troops into the temple area in order to put down the protestors, the soldiers met resistance, unsheathed their swords and massacred not only the protestors but the Galilean bystanders. There was a superstition at the time that if people died in such a way, it must be a sign that God was punishing them for some serious sins they had committed, as if they somehow “deserved it.” Jesus asks, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way, they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?” “No way!,” he said. Then he brought up another example of people who were bathing underneath the water tower at the pool of Siloam in Jerusalem, which they believed had miraculous powers to cure them of bodily illnesses. The shoddily constructed tower collapsed one day and crushed some of those bathing to death. Jesus asked again, whether they thought the 18 people who died were “more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem!” “By no means!,” he said again. And he made a crucial moral point in response to both tragedies: “I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” He didn’t mean that we would all die by being in the wrong place at the wrong time as a victim of some terrible accident, like a falling crane in Manhattan, or in a freak tornado, or by an inexplicable drive-by shooting in a previously safe neighborhood. What Jesus meant was that unless we repent, we will die as unready as the people from Galilee in the Temple or the Jerusalem residents next to the Siloam water tower. The only way we’ll be ready to die well, to die ready to pass to life, will be if we repent, recognize our need for God’s mercy, come to receive that mercy, and then come to live in full accordance with that gift.
Jesus, who called us on Ash Wednesday, to “repent and believe” and who tells us in the verse before today’s Gospel, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand,” really, really, really, really means it, and he wants to help us to do so thoroughly. One of the main themes of Lent is, as God announces through the prophet Ezekiel, is “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, but rather in his conversion, so that he may live” (Ezek 33:11). Jesus died, in fact, so that we wouldn’t perish but have eternal life (Jn 3:16). But we have to cooperate with that gift and do so as our biggest priority, with true urgency.
Are We Bearing Fruit or Wasting the Soil?
Jesus gives the parable of the fruitless fig tree to drive home the point of the pressing need for us to respond to his mercy. The fig tree represents human life. The owner represents God the Father. The gardener represents Jesus. The owner came looking for fruit on the fig tree and, finding none, said to the gardener, “For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree but have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?” The point, harsh as it may initially seem to our modern ears, is clear: some people sadly are wasting their lives, not bearing any fruit whatsoever; some people receive all types of gifts from the soil, but give nothing back. Those people, Jesus seems to indicate, are “wasting the soil.” Such people merit, according to the parable, to be cut down — not as a punishment, but because, to some degree, they’re already dead. If a Christian is not bearing fruit, if he’s not thinking like Christ, living like Christ, loving like Christ, forgiving like Christ, he’s spiritually dead. If a Christian is living like everyone else, compromising with sin, identifying more with the standards of the world than the standards of the Gospel and Christ’s kingdom, then she’s spiritually deceased.
God’s Merciful Second Chance
But thanks be to God, that’s not the end of the story. The parable has often been called the Parable of the Second Chance and that’s what we see. The gardener in the parable, representing Jesus, makes an extraordinary intervention. Fig trees normally take three years to mature and if they’re not bearing fruit by the end of the third year, they’re likely never going to do so. And yet the gardener beseeches the Orchard owner, “Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.” He asks for an opportunity to try, essentially, to raise the fig tree from the dead, to help something that has not yet borne fruit and probably never will to be given every last chance to do so. And this is a lesson for our life. If we’re not bearing fruit in our Christian lives after the years that God has given us — if we’re not growing in faith, in hope, in love, if we’re not bearing fruit in acts of loving adoration, thanksgiving, prayer and service of others, if we’re not living our faith and passionately sharing it, if we’re not responding to God’s gift of mercy, coming to receive it, being merciful toward others and bringing others to receive it — then we’re like a barren fig tree, wasting our life, wasting God’s graces just like the fig tree was exhausting the soil. But Christ asks for more time for our life, fertilizing the soil of our hearts with his blood, offering us once again his mercy, his healing, his help, his grace. Jesus goes the extra mile so that our life, if it’s spiritually barren, may have every possible chance.
Pope Francis said this morning in his Angelus meditation in St. Peter’s Square, “Jesus invites us to change the heart, to make a radical switch on the path of our lives, abandoning compromises with evil” and rejecting the hypocritical temptation to think we’re “basically good people” who don’t really need to convert. “Unfortunately,” the Holy Father says, “each of us very much resembles the tree that, over many years, has repeatedly shown that it’s sterile. But, fortunately for us, Jesus is like a farmer who, with limitless patience, still obtains a concession for the fruitless vine.” Jesus gains for us “a ‘year’ of grace, … a time of a Jubilee Year of Mercy,” essentially telling us, that as long as we live, “It’s never too late to convert.”
Resisting the Devil’s Greatest Temptation
But at the same time, Jesus in the Parable makes it clear that there will come a time when there will be no time left. There’s a time when after that fertilization, if no fruit is being borne, the tree will be cut down. And that time, as the pilgrims from Galilee and the bathers at the pool of Siloam found out, may come suddenly, when we least expect it. That ought to leave us with a sense of urgency. The devil’s greatest temptation, according to the brilliant 20th century British writer CS Lewis, is not to convince us that God doesn’t exist — because most of us have too much commonsense to realize that if our watch couldn’t put itself together on its own then there would be no way to explain the existence and order of the world or even the wonder of the human person unless there were a “divine Watchmaker,” a God who ordered the whole world. No, the devil’s greatest temptation, as Lewis wrote in his fabulous work The Screwtape Letters, is to convince us that … there’s … always … time. We don’t have to convert today. We’ll have plenty of time to convert when we’re 80, or 90, or on our deathbed. We don’t have to say sorry to someone we’ve hurt today, because we’ll get to it the next time we’ll see them. We don’t have to say to a family member that we love them, because there’s absolutely no chance that their or our life will end before we have the chance for that conversation. The Father of Lies is constantly trying to tempt us to put off to tomorrow the conversion, the charity, the mercy that needs to be lived today. Jesus, who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, wants us to grasp that now, not tomorrow, not next year, not 10, 30 or 60 years down the road, is the time. Now is the day of salvation. Now is the time of mercy. Now is the time for our response in faith. Now is the time for us to bear fruit.
Not Receiving God’s Grace in Vain
In today’s second reading, St. Paul intensifies this wake-up call if we’re being tempted to ignore or delay Jesus’ merciful and pressing appeal to repent and believe. He describes all of the blessings the Israelites received in the desert after God had called Moses from the burning bush and sent him to Pharaoh to liberate the Israelites from slavery, after God through Moses had worked ten miracles to get Pharaoh finally to let them return home, after God worked so many more miracles for them in the desert. “I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters,” St. Paul tells us, “that our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea. … All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them.” After so many manifestations of God’s mercy and salvation, we would think that they would have all been saints. But St. Paul comments: “Yet God was not pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the desert.” And he adds, “These things happened as examples for us…, as a warning to us,” namely, that “whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.” If any of us thinks we’re standing secure, that we’re not being called to make this Lent the best Lent of our life, that the extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy is meant for other people because we really don’t need it, we need to beware lest we fall … and fall all the way to the netherworld. The truth is that we’ve received far greater blessings in our life than the Israelites ever did in the desert, because we’ve received the fulfillment of what all the miracles they experienced foretold. All of us have passed through the Red Sea of baptism. All of us have received the protection of the cloud via manifold interior graces. All of us have eaten of something far greater than manna, the Body of Christ, the true Bread from Heaven (cf. Jn 6:32). All of us have literally drunk Christ’s blood, the Living Water that flows up to life eternal (cf. John 4), the blood poured out for the forgiveness of sins. But all these divine gifts, like the blessings received by the Israelites, will not save us unless we correspond with them, unless we bear fruit as a result of them, unless, for example, Jesus’ giving of his body and blood for us transforms us and makes us willing to give our body and blood for him and others.
What We Need to Bear Fruit
This extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, this Lent 2016, is a gift of time from the Lord so that we might become the type of tree that will bear much fruit, not out of fear of judgment, not so that we won’t be cut down, but out of love for God who is kind and merciful, who loves us and has given us so many graces so that we will bear fruit. Jesus spoke often in the Gospel about what we need to bear fruit, but I’ll focus on two things. First, we need to examine our soil, to make sure it’s the “good soil” Jesus describes in the Parable of the Sower and the Seed, and not the hardened stubborn soil by the way side that doesn’t allow God’s word to change them, not the rocky, superficial soil that only focuses on likes and dislikes and doesn’t allow God’s word to go deep, not the thorny soil choked by worldly anxieties and pleasures that cares too much about the things of this world and not enough about the things of God. Good soil, Jesus says, bears fruit, and not just some fruit, but 30, 60 or 100 fold fruit. To have this good soil begins with our listening so attentively to God’s word that we’ll allow it to change us in 30, 60 or 100 ways, and it often involves our recognizing and battling against all those tendencies that tempt us to receive God’s word, God’s invitation to mercy, on hardened, or rocky or thorny soil. The second condition for bearing fruit, Jesus told us during the Last Supper, is to remain attached to him, to draw our whole life from him. In the image of the Vine and the Branches, he tells us, “Just as a branch cannot bear fruit on its own unless it remains on the vine, so neither can you unless you remain in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Whoever remains in me and I in him will bear much fruit.” And we remain in Christ, and he remains in us, through prayer, through the Sacraments, and through the Christian moral life. This Sunday is an occasion for us to recommit ourselves to putting God first in our life and prioritizing these means so that we will never be a barren fig tree, but a branch on the vine of Christ that bears abundant fruit in every season.
As we approach Christ that Vine in the Holy Eucharist, as we draw near him who is the incarnation of the God who said to Moses in today’s first reading “I am who am,” we thank Him for all his blessings — for our baptism, for the privilege to receive his body and blood, for the availability of his life-changing forgiveness in Confession, for his great hope in us — but especially for giving us more time, this Year of Mercy, to bear the type of fruit that he expects and that we, deeply, in the depth of our heart want to bear. The most fruitful tree that has ever existed was the Tree of the Cross, the new Tree of Life, and it’s here in Mass that we become truly united as branches on the Vine with Christ on the Cross so that together with him we indeed bear much fruit. In the Mass, from the Cross, Jesus is fertilizing the soil of our souls so that we will bear abundant fruit, fruit that will last, fruit that will save us and by God’s mercy save others too. Jesus tells us that if we do not repent, we will all perish suddenly without being ready. But if we do repent, if we do respond to his mercy, if we heed his warning and the warning of St. Paul in the second reading, then we will experience what we prayed in today’s psalm, that the Lord redeems our life from destruction, crowns us with eternal kindness and compassion, and will bring us to that place, with Mary and the saints, where our soul and all our being will bless God’s holy name forever and ever and ever. Amen!
The readings for today’s Mass were:
Reading 1 EX 3:1-8A, 13-15
the priest of Midian.
Leading the flock across the desert, he came to Horeb,
the mountain of God.
There an angel of the LORD appeared to Moses in fire
flaming out of a bush.
As he looked on, he was surprised to see that the bush,
though on fire, was not consumed.
So Moses decided,
“I must go over to look at this remarkable sight,
and see why the bush is not burned.”When the LORD saw him coming over to look at it more closely,
God called out to him from the bush, “Moses! Moses!”
He answered, “Here I am.”
God said, “Come no nearer!
Remove the sandals from your feet,
for the place where you stand is holy ground.
I am the God of your fathers,” he continued,
“the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.”
Moses hid his face, for he was afraid to look at God.
But the LORD said,
“I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt
and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers,
so I know well what they are suffering.
Therefore I have come down to rescue them
from the hands of the Egyptians
and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land,
a land flowing with milk and honey.”Moses said to God, “But when I go to the Israelites
and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’
if they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what am I to tell them?”
God replied, “I am who am.”
Then he added, “This is what you shall tell the Israelites:
I AM sent me to you.”God spoke further to Moses, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites:
The LORD, the God of your fathers,
the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob,
has sent me to you.“This is my name forever;
thus am I to be remembered through all generations.”
Responsorial Psalm PS 103: 1-2, 3-4, 6-7, 8, 11
Bless the LORD, O my soul;
and all my being, bless his holy name.
Bless the LORD, O my soul,
and forget not all his benefits.
R. The Lord is kind and merciful.
He pardons all your iniquities,
heals all your ills,
He redeems your life from destruction,
crowns you with kindness and compassion.
R. The Lord is kind and merciful.
The LORD secures justice
and the rights of all the oppressed.
He has made known his ways to Moses,
and his deeds to the children of Israel.
R. The Lord is kind and merciful.
Merciful and gracious is the LORD,
slow to anger and abounding in kindness.
For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so surpassing is his kindness toward those who fear him.
R. The Lord is kind and merciful.
Reading 2 1 COR 10:1-6, 10-12
I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters,
that our ancestors were all under the cloud
and all passed through the sea,
and all of them were baptized into Moses
in the cloud and in the sea.
All ate the same spiritual food,
and all drank the same spiritual drink,
for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them,
and the rock was the Christ.
Yet God was not pleased with most of them,
for they were struck down in the desert.
These things happened as examples for us,
so that we might not desire evil things, as they did.
Do not grumble as some of them did,
and suffered death by the destroyer.
These things happened to them as an example,
and they 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.
Verse Before The Gospel MT 4:17
Repent, says the Lord;
the kingdom of heaven is at hand.
Gospel LK 13:1-9
whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.
Jesus said to them in reply,
“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way
they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!
Or those eighteen people who were killed
when the tower at Siloam fell on them—
do you think they were more guilty
than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!”And he told them this parable:
“There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard,
and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none,
he said to the gardener,
‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree
but have found none.
So cut it down.
Why should it exhaust the soil?’
He said to him in reply,
‘Sir, leave it for this year also,
and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it;
it may bear fruit in the future.
If not you can cut it down.’”