We are near the halfway point of Lent, and today’s readings offer us important reminders. The first reading for the Third Sunday of Lent reminds us to be open and receptive to encountering God in our everyday lives. The Gospel echoes the focus on repentance from the beginning and ending of Lent and the necessity of growing along the way.
In the first reading from Exodus, we hear the story of Moses encountering God at the burning bush. Tending flocks in the desert, Moses likely was not expecting to have such a powerful experience. Yet at Mount Horeb, the divine name is revealed, and Moses is commissioned to confront Pharaoh and lead the Israelites from captivity in Egypt. Moses’ reaction is multifaceted, a mix of fear, uncertainty, curiosity and openness. When called by name, Moses responds, “Here I am” (Heb. Hineni), a statement showing attentiveness to God and a willingness to listen. The narrative reminds us that we may be inspired or called at any time in our lives, and we should respond with a desire to hear and answer God’s call.
The Gospel reading from Luke helps us to look both forward and backward as we journey through Lent. Jesus speaks with his followers about Galileans who are suffering and dying at the hand of Pilate, a foreshadowing of Jesus’ own death. Jesus calls on those gathered to recognize the universality of death and not think that they can avoid a similar fate. Jesus uses the events to affirm the realities of death and also to reiterate the need to repent from sins. These ideas are central to how Lent began on Ash Wednesday, offering reminders of our mortality and also our need to turn away from sin and believe in the good news. By discussing the suffering of others, Jesus insists that his followers must grow, change and repent from sin throughout life, saying directly “I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did” (Luke 13:3).
Repentance is a central theme in the Gospels. Luke affirms its significance by beginning and ending Jesus’ ministry with calls to repent, such as John proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins and Jesus instructing the disciples to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins after the resurrection. Today’s Gospel highlights repentance and offers the parable of the fig tree as a way to reflect on what repentance entails.
In the short story, a man observes a fig tree that has not produced fruit in three years. He instructs the gardener to cut it down, as it is needlessly sapping resources from the soil without bearing fruit. The gardener recognizes the problems with the tree, but instead of considering it a lost cause, he commits to cultivating and nourishing the earth to help invigorate its growth.
In this parable, the failing fig tree might symbolize a lack of productivity and a failure to repent. The man and the gardener offer two approaches to responding when things are not going well. The man says cut down the tree, but the gardener is willing to invest in the tree. The gardener offers us a model for how to respond to our shortcomings and those of others.
Instead of immediately cutting down the tree, the gardener asks for time to nurture the tree and help it to bear fruit. He understands that change will not happen overnight, and he also expresses willingness to give needed care, attention and resources to help it to produce fruit. As we continue into the second half of our Lenten journey, this little parable can offer us powerful inspiration. Like the gardener, we too should commit to working on ourselves and others to nourish our spiritual growth.