Frances writes on next weekends Bible readings :- Many, mistakenly, think Lent is about giving up something – usually food, so that the period turns into a slimming exercise. But our readings, both from last week and this, suggest it is much more about the taking on of something very significant in our lives. Last week, we saw Abraham discover his identity in his relationship with Yahweh, the God of Israel. Here today, it is the turn of Moses. I think we are to presume that during their time in Egypt the Israelites lost much of their relationship with their sole God and turned to the worship of the gods of Egypt. Certainly when Moses fled and ended up marrying into the household of the Midianite priest Jethro, (Exodus 3:1-8.13-15) we meet a priest of pagan gods. Archaeological evidence has unearthed a sanctuary to Hathor near their important Bronze Age copper mines at the top of the Sinai peninsular. Hathor was an Egyptian mother goddess, a giver of fertility to man and beast, sometimes presented with a cows head, at others with that of a lion. She was a god of joy and dancing, often accompanied by models of silver or bronze snakes. So shades of Moses’ career clearly come from this syncretism. Our passage is about his rediscovery of the God of the Hebrews, and the empowerment he discovered as his vocation as leader of the Exodus, driven it appears by this dawning understanding among the clan of Midian.
The enigmatic tale of the burning bush is, I think a pointer to Moses’ journey of rediscovery of his faith and that of his people, and clearly we are meant to see that it all took some time. The script gives us a single conversation between him and God, but perhaps we should think of it as a gradual process in which, once sparked into thought, the young man Moses was moved to progress further and further, until under his rediscovered faith he understood what he was called to do.
Our Gospel presents a similar picture. (Luke 13:1-9) There is no historical record of the incident recounted by Jesus about the appalling actions of Pilate, quite simply because it was considered insignificant. It probably arose from some minor fracas, a bit of a riot over pilgrims and their behaviour. Of course, for the Jews, it would have had great significance, a Passover polluted by human blood, let alone the tragedy for those involved. Naturally, interpretation relied on age old tales of human sin in the victims as being responsible for the deaths of the Galileans. For Pilate and his staff it would have been simply a consequence of crowd control, not worth the mention. Similarly, with the collapse of the tower near Siloam, part of Jerusalem. We know that in Rome and elsewhere buildings regularly fell down, often with tragic consequences, for no other reason than shoddy construction. Many men grew rich on precisely this kind of situation, rushing in with offers to clear up and build again. In an age in which one writer has described ‘demons as common as microbes’, we can appreciate that finding some reason for the chaos, blaming the victim, clearly made some sense. Jesus would have none of this rubbish! His attitude was to look at the heart of all fallen humanity and see their need for God, a need which had nothing to do with corrupt officials or substandard building. Our real need is for God, and unless we detach ourselves from the fables of this world, by which we can and so often do separate ourselves from the rest of fallen needy humanity, we are truly lost.
Jesus therefore challenged the basis on which their society functioned and asked his audience to do the same. His tiny vignette of the fig tree is his picture of God’s patience with erring creation. He speaks of the slave whose diligence and care knows that some good things just take a bit longer, more patience, more generosity before they – we quite literally – bear fruit. It is a parable about the diligence of God himself, who does not immediately rush in impatiently with a hatchet wiping out the sinner to start all over again; but will give his creation time, time to discover and get to know and respond to him, just as he did with Moses.
St Paul, God’s slave, as we know had endless problems with converts to Christianity. Here (1 Cor 10:1-6.10-12) he is still mulling over the whole question of foods offered to pagan gods and whether or not the convert could buy and consume such meat. It is clear from the letter, that some rigorously avoided such items, whereas others adopted Paul’s view that as the gods didn’t exist nothing happened in their sacrifice. But then there was the question of the more gullible, even syncretistic convert and how one’s own behaviour might affect them. In this part of the letter Paul does not jump to hasty conclusions, or even self-righteous ones, he mulls the situation over. Part of his answer therefore is his pondering on the Moses/Exodus experience, and their gradually dawning realisation of the truth. It all took time. He and his Corinthian Christians would probably have known the Exodus story quite well, and so his appeal to its lengthy and indeed all too rocky progress in the Jewish faith would stand as a warning to the Christians too. The message seems to be “Go carefully, thoughtfully, prayerfully. Our journey to God is a slow and rocky one calling for growth and discernment and trust in him, rather than in our own hastily reached answers.” We have to learn to live with the Lord, a master who looks on our struggles with much more kindliness than we do ourselves.