The fruit of God’s mercy

3rd Sunday in Lent, 20 March 2022

After two years of pandemic, now there is war.  Many Europeans turned away from God because of the two world wars during which millions were killed.  Often we ask why God allows such things to happen.  Martin Luther King, Jnr. said God did not invent the atomic bomb – man did.  War comes because of human frailty and evil impulses.  Let us pray that this war will be short, to spare human lives and suffering.  

We tend to ask where God is in these things, but we need to seek God’s presence in His temple.[1]  If we set our eyes on what is happening around us, we’ll see trouble everywhere.  We can make the world better, but we can never make it what God intended it to be; we need to depend upon His intervention, and His grace and love.  

I’ve been led to examine myself, and to ask God, “What are You saying to the world?  What are You saying to me?”  Does He want me to draw closer to Him, or to set my priorities right?  Rather than blaming God, this is the question we should ask.

Christianity is relational, not superstitious

In today’s Gospel, Jesus was told that some Galileans offering sacrifices at the temple were killed at Pilate’s order.[2]  Why did Pilate have them killed?  Such atrocities show his brutality towards the Jews; some commentators say he was trying to aggravate Herod (they were not on good terms).[3]  

In the previous chapter, Jesus was talking about signs: When it’s cloudy, you know it’s likely to rain; but can you discern the signs of the times?[4]  Some people are asking, “Are we in the end times?”  We have been in the end times since Pentecost; anything could happen.  As Christians, we need to live with the understanding that Jesus could come at any time, and look forward to it – not to escape, but because it’s our desire.  Advent is every day, longing for Christ.  What we’re looking for cannot be found in the world, and the world cannot offer it.  It’s an illusion to think the world can satisfy the desires of our heart.  Every day we should long for Christ’s coming.

Jesus was quick to reject the idea that these people were killed as a direct consequence of their sinfulness, and also gave another example.  But in both cases He concluded, “Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”[5]  Humans easily attribute misfortune to human sinfulness; for example, a woman’s inability to carry a child is perceived as God’s punishment for her sins.  When Jesus healed a man who was blind from birth, His disciples asked whether it was because of the man’s sin or his parents’; He was quick to say it was neither.  

We all search for answers, and it’s human to blame others.  Beyond this, many of us tend to look at life from a perspective of luck or superstition, and to view Christianity as transactional.  

  • Superstition can be described as credulity, gullibility, or misplaced trust concerning the supernatural; it can lead to irrational fear, misdirected reverence, false religion, or even magic.  Many of us come from a background of “cultural Christianity”, and from a country and culture in which superstition is prevalent.  Superstition is not in agreement with Christian belief.  
  • The Webster dictionary defines luck as “a force that brings fortune or adversity”: a random power that controls human destiny.  This idea denies God’s omnipotence.  If you believe in luck, you disregard the power of God.  Luck and superstition are both to be avoided.
  • A transactional view of Christianity says, “Jesus, I will obey you, but You will do this for me.”  Christianity is not transactional but relational, like the Vine and the branches. 

Once I was invited to a house blessing where there were two altars: one with the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the other with Buddha.  I said they needed to choose between Jesus’ blessing and Buddha’s blessing – you cannot have both.  Life is not under the heel of luck, nor is Christianity wrapped in superstition.  We cannot interpret Christianity from the standpoints of luck, transaction, or superstition.  Christianity is relational.

Will God destroy His creation?

Jesus then tells a parable about a tree in a vineyard.[6]  This image appears throughout the Bible, for example in Psalm 80, and the stories told by our Lord use it repeatedly:

  • The landowner who hired labourers in his vineyard[7]
  • The parable of the wicked vinedressers[8]
  • Jesus cursed a fig tree[9]

After three years the landowner went to the vineyard and said, “This tree is not bearing fruit.  Cut it down – it’s taking nutrients from the soil.”  The servant said, “Sir, let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.”[10]

Such language is very evident in the Scriptures:

  • In the story of the flood in Noah’s time, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.” [11]  The Lord wanted to destroy humanity; but later He said, “No, I will not”, and provided a rainbow as the sign of His covenant that He would never do so again.
  • When the children of Israel worshipped a golden calf, a false god, God was so angry that He wanted to destroy Israel.  Moses said, “If You’re going to destroy them, You might as well destroy me!” and God relented, or stopped His plan to destroy them.[12]

We may wonder why there’s such a contrast; sometimes the language God uses seems ambiguous.  Scripture says, “I regret that I created humanity”[13] – does God regret that He made His creation?  Then God changes His mind and says, “No, I will not destroy creation again.”  Is God not sure what He intends to do?  Is He not sure about His relationship with us?  At first glance, these stories seem to suggest ambivalence, equivocation, uncertainty, and perhaps even doubt; but from what we know of God, that is not His character.  They are rather a language of divine “condescension” which points to the mystery of God’s love and mercy:  If God had been human, He would have destroyed Israel – but He is not.  It’s a language the Scripture uses for God “coming down”, to make us understand – “Had I been a human like you, with what you have done, I could have destroyed you”.  These stories speak of God’s love and mercy towards humanity.

God’s mercy is to make us fruitful

In the second lesson, Saint Paul says the children of Israel had experienced Baptism, God’s presence, and the Eucharist every Sunday, and heard His Word spoken to them; but they were so disobedient that instead of humbling themselves and repenting before God, they did exactly the opposite.  

The Scripture portrays God and man’s relationship as a Covenant.  Scott Hahn says,

“A covenant is similar to a contract, but a covenant is more than a contract.  Contracts make people customers, employees, clients; whereas covenants turn them into spouses, parents, children and siblings.  Covenants are made to forge bonds of sacred kinship.”

Our relationship with God and one another is sacred.  Holy Matrimony is not a contract – it’s a sacred bond.

“In this Covenant is God’s unconditional love for His creation.  God’s unconditional love is His grace and mercy, which invites us to repentance.”

The grace and mercy of God are described as

“His character demonstrated through compassion, extreme generosity to sinful human beings… shielding them from His wrath, forgiving them, and bestowing on them His righteousness so they can live and grow in faith and obedience.”

Patrick Reardon sees the Church as a vine:[14]

‘You transplanted a vine out of Egypt; You drove out the nations and planted it.  You cleared the way before it; You planted its roots, and it filled the earth.’[15]  It is a catholic plant…”

That catholic plant is you and me, the Church.  This tree is speaking about the Church.

            “…and this vine, for its branches spread everywhere – ‘Its shadow covered the mountains, its boughs the cedars of God; it stretched out its leaves to the sea, and its tendrils to the rivers.’[16]

When we consider God’s magnanimity, or extreme generosity, there’s nothing else heaven can give to you and me – He has given everything.  He gave His only begotten Son, the best heaven can give, on the cross; and He showers us with His grace through the Sacraments of the Church, so that we will be a fruitful vine in His Kingdom and our lives will be fruitful.  Mother Teresa said, “God did not call us to be successful, but to be faithful.”  Henri Nouwen said there’s a difference between success and fruitfulness.  God didn’t call us first to be successful, but to show forth the fruit of the very life of Christ that we receive in Baptism.  Unfortunately, some Christians can be successful but not fruitful.  We’re called to be a fruitful tree, and a fruitful person in the Church.  

Sometimes making Christianity a religion is what destroys it all.  Instead of going to church and saying, “What else can God do for me, and what else can I ask from Him?” let us ask, “Lord, how can I respond to Your grace and mercy that You’ve shown us?”  We’re here to demonstrate fruitfulness.  God called you to become a fruitful branch in His Kingdom, even despite our sin; Jesus paid for our sin, because He wants you to be fruitful.  The fruit is not for us to eat – it’s for others to eat.  Let the fruitfulness of Christ’s Kingdom be seen in us, and let the world receive it and be blessed as well.

[1] Psalm 27:4

[2] To say their blood was mingled with their sacrifices reflects the pictorial language of the Middle East at that time.

[3] Pilate was governor of Jerusalem, but Galilee was under Herod’s jurisdiction.

[4] Luke 12:54-56

[5] Luke 13:3, 5, NKJV

[6] Luke 13:6-9

[7] Matthew 20:1-16

[8] Mark 12:1-12

[9] Matthew 21:19

[10] Luke 13:8, NRSV

[11] Genesis 6:5, NRSV

[12] Exodus 32:1-14

[13] Genesis 6:7

[14] (The intention here is not to address the theology of replacement.)

[15] Psalm 80:8-9

[16] Psalm 80:10-11

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