John R. Donahue
Third Sunday of Lent (C), March 18, 2001
Merciful and gracious is the Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness (Ps. 103:8)

Shortly before Christmas 1997, a much beloved Jesuit died, Harry Corcoran, charter member of the Catholic Theological Society of America and first dean of the Jesuit School of Theology at Berkeley, but above all, a shining person who walked constantly in God’s presence. Once Harry was talking about his childhood and recalled his father saying, “Now Harry, I just want you to remember that God is a mighty unpredictable fellow.” Harry’s father anticipated, in less theological terms, Karl Rahner’s constant refrain that God is absolute mystery.

Today’s readings seem to present an unpredictable God. The first reading, one of the most significant in the Bible, is about the self-revelation of God to Moses from the burning bush. Moses, the exiled shepherd, approaches a bush that burns but is not consumed and hears a command to remove his shoes, since he is in a holy place (a custom still honored today when Muslims enter a mosque).

Then follows a series of startling divine self-disclosures. God is the God of the ancestors of the people, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and a God who enters into the history of a suffering people, expressed in a cavalcade of actions: I have witnessed their affliction and hear their cry and know well their suffering; I have come down to rescue them and to lead them out of a land of slavery to a land flowing with milk and honey. Israel’s God is no otiose or disengaged monarch, but a loving parent who has compassion on his suffering children and enters their world as a liberator. As Abraham Joshua Heschel, the great Jewish theologian and mystic, often stressed, Israel’s history is not so much the story of suffering humanity’s quest for God but of a compassionate God entering and shaping human life.

This God is then revealed to Moses by a name that is a “title for all generations,” “I am who am.” The original impact of this powerful but enigmatic title has often been obscured by theological speculation. Name-giving is one of the most basic forms of communication, and here it carries the nuance of self-communication and abiding presence. It is not a description of God’s essence so much as a promise of enduring presence, which summarizes the engaged God of the previous verses.

When we turn to the Gospel, Jesus seems at first to show a different God. Murder by brutal rulers and accidental death seem to be divine punishment for sin, and Jesus says, “You will all come to the same end unless you begin to reform.” Jesus’ hearers shared a common world-view that sudden death was a punishment for sin, and that since things were going well in their lives, they had no need to repent. The point of comparison in the stories of the death of the Galileans and those killed by the falling tower is the suddenness of the event, not primarily that these events are divine punishment.

Jesus then adds a parable about a patient God, who gives time for conversion. The owner of a fruitless fig tree wants it destroyed, but the vinedresser asks for more time to cultivate it so “perhaps” it will bear fruit; but if not, it can be cut down. Jesus never tells what happened. Did the tree bear fruit? His hearers and we ourselves must answer this question in our own lives.

Today and on the next two Sundays, the readings focus on the Lenten theme of repentance. Today’s readings tell us that the God to whom we return (the root meaning of the word repentance) is God of our past, just as he was the God of Abraham and a God who constantly enters our lives with liberating compassion. Repentance or a turning away from one path to another is not so much finding God but being found by God. Jesus tells a parable of a God who is patient and ready to give a second chance. In God’s time a fruitless past need not produce a barren future.

With the beginning of spring a few days away, thoughts of gardening arise. Lent is a time for a little pruning and nurturing of our personal fig trees. After all, God is pretty unpredictable, and who knows what may blossom in a few weeks?

John R. Donahue, S.J., is professor of New Testament studies at the Jesuit School of Theology and Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, Calif.

Readings: 
Readings: Ex. 3:1-8a; 13-15; Ps. 103; 1 Cor. 10:1-6; 10-12; Lk. 13:1-9
Prayer: 

• Repeat prayerfully and quietly the actions of God from the first reading.

• Pray about ways that God has entered your life in “unpredictable” ways.

• There is still time; in prayer inspect your personal “fig tree.”