Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- From very ancient times people have had a tendency to explain the misfortune of themselves or others as the work of the gods. Divine displeasure is visited upon those whom the gods have cause to dislike. We call this fatalism or quietism and behind it lies the notion that nothing we do ever makes any difference either to our present or future, even immortal lives.
In our gospel, (Luke 13:1-9), we see Jesus resolutely rejecting such a notion: “Do you suppose that these Galileans who suffered like that were greater sinners than any other Galileans?” His point surely is that we are all sinners, but, as he remarks, we have the chance to repent, to change and to relate to God as we are meant to. Far from being mere puppets, playthings of a fickle deity, we are called to engage with him and, given the chance, to grow in love with him; hence the parable of the fig tree and its tender care, or the vineyard worker’s willingly applied manuring, to ‘give it a second chance’. Quite clearly, we are that unproductive fig tree.
Indeed, it appears that none of us can rest on our laurels, assuming that we are righteous in God’s sight – the other side of the fatalism coin, where certain people stick rigidly to the law and assume that in consequence they are in the right with God, whilst everyone else is out in the cold. Both Jesus and Paul had considerable experience of this, indeed, Paul’s personal understanding of the Law righteous, along with that of other Pharisees, led to uncharitable attitudes to those who could not fulfil the Law of Moses for economic reasons or because of sickness. In our second reading, (1 Corinthians 10:1-6; 10-12), Paul, writing to a mixed community of Jewish Christians and those who were formerly pagan ‘god-fearers’, reminds them of their Jewish heritage and the sad story of the Exodus in which even Moses did not gain possession of the Promised Land because of his sin, even though he was the appointed leader of the people and the great father of the faith. None of us can ever presume that we are guaranteed a place in God’s kingdom, our path to God in Christ will always remain a work in progress, and Paul was at pains to explain this to Jewish Christians of the circumcision lest they presume they were in a better position than their convert colleagues in the Christian faith.
Indeed, it is clear from our Old Testament reading, (Ex 3:1-8; 13-15), that God has work for us all to do. God attracts the young Moses to his cause by gaining his interest with the burning bush, and appeals to his understanding by reminding Moses that he is the God of the Jewish tradition, of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. But this appeal is not enough, as God knows, for the Lord reveals himself to Moses as someone altogether more mysterious and stretching; as I Am. Surely here Moses is brought up against not simply the deity of his ancestors, but being itself, creator, sustainer, redeemer. He is taken into the presence of God in a way more compelling, deeper and more revealing than any of the ancestral gods of the ancient peoples, either Jewish or pagan, of which there were so many forms and revelations in nature; the elements or the animal forms in which they were worshipped. To help him begin this great lifelong journey of exploration and discovery of the I Am, Moses is given a task – to deliver Israel from slavery in Egypt and take it to the Promised Land, the gift of God. It is on this journey, through its many dangers and betrayals, that Israel would discover itself as the ‘chosen people’. The Old Testament will affirm time and time again that it was never because of Israel’s goodness and fidelity to God that it was chosen, but by God’s grace. It would be precisely through its disasters and failures that it came to know God. This is what we have to learn too, that the faith isn’t some finite thing which once granted through a modicum of information is fixed forever; on the contrary, our faith is a living and dynamic interaction with the I Am, the being of God, who continually calls us into his enigmatic and enchanting presence.