The lessons appointed for this third Sunday in Lent sound a note of urgency and threat. They refer to violent catastrophes and offer pointed warnings. They testify to the uncertainty of human life, they challenge any sense of security we may still possess, they leave us unsettled.
The Epistle recalls the unhappy experience of the Hebrews in the desert following the Exodus. “God was not pleased with most of them,” St. Paul tells us, “and they were struck down in the wilderness.”
In the Gospel, we hear Jesus telling two terrible stories, one, of Galilean executions, the other, of eighteen people killed by a falling tower at Siloam. Jesus for a moment appears to hold out the possibility that these victims somehow deserved their fate, but he then answers the question he has asked. There is no logic to be found in such disasters.
In a year that has already seen a major hurricane in Fiji, the threat of the Zika virus, the continuation of a protracted civil war in Syria, and the ever-present warnings of terrorist threats, do we need to be reminded that terrible things can happen to people who don’t deserve them?
But there is another common thread that runs through these lessons. It is that if in such a world we have tests to meet and a job to do—we have the support we need to meet the tests and to do the job.
Few have received an assignment more challenging than the one Moses found at the blazing bush. He must assert his leadership among the Israelites, convince them of his authority, and lead them out of Egypt. Moses responds with all too human uncertainty and anxiety, saying, in effect, “Surely you can’t mean me!” But God says, “I do mean you,” and He assures Moses that he will give him the support he needs.
The parable Jesus tells in the Gospel also concerns an assignment, though it is one offered as a metaphor. We hear that the days are numbered for an unproductive fig tree. The owner wants it cut down. But the gardener argues for a year’s stay of execution—not because the tree’s lack of productivity should be overlooked, but because in a year’s time, if he gives it special care, it may become productive.
The final expression of this common thread, that we will find support as we meet the challenges we face, St. Paul offers in his letter to the Corinthians. After providing several cautionary examples of those who became victims of their unfaithfulness and disobedience, he offers quiet words of assurance: God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength. With the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.
Despite the remarkably different contexts out of which they arise, these lessons, heard together, offer a perspective on catastrophe, tragedy, and loss worthy of mature and thoughtful Christians.
This perspective is one that rejects our often self-serving attempts to find explanations. When New Orleans flooded in 2005 in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, one prominent evangelist described the tragedy as a divine punishment for the Crescent City lifestyle. The same voice attributed a hurricane in Haiti to the survival there of voodoo. In a much more immediate sense, who has not found comfort, in hearing of an untimely death, in learning that the deceased was a chain smoker or an overeater or a heavy drinker? When there is catastrophe, in the world or in our lives, we want reasons, we want an explanation.
A couple of years ago, on NPR’s Weekend Edition, Guy Roz was interviewing James Martin, the author of The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything. Roz saved the hardest question for last, he said. “Father Martin, why does God allow such terrible things to happen in the world?” Martin paused and then responded. “We don’t know.” Those in the crowd listening to Jesus would not be pleased with this answer. When Jesus asks them whether they think the victims of Pilate or those crushed by the tower were somehow brought to their fate by their sin, the answer the people clearly want is, “yes.” Like the friends of Job, who attempt to persuade Job that he must have done something to deserve the ordeals he is enduring, they want to make sense of catastrophe in order to make themselves feel less at risk. They’re like many of us: if we can find in the circumstances of tragedy some element that promises to exempt us, we take comfort: no way that could happen to us. Jesus says to the crowd—and to us—nothing doing. You are subject to the same kind of risk. It could just as easily happen to you. It may still. Live as though you are subject to the same kind of risk—because you are. Repent and do the will of God. Not because that will protect you from the catastrophes of the world. But because that is how the faithful live in a world of catastrophe.
The perspective shared by these lessons is also one that asks us to respond to our world of risk and challenge by doing something. Lead the Israelites out of Egypt. Stand up to the test placed before you. Produce some figs. Closer to home, the message is one calling us to live in faith and resolution and persistence. One way to make our way through a world of tragedy and catastrophe is to remain determined to make a difference, to listen to the Lord and attempt to carry forward His will, to “go and serve the Lord.” Keep attention focused on Fiji, even though the headlines will soon shift to another part of the world. Don’t forget New Orleans, where there are still souls struggling to remake their lives and their city. And don’t forget the poor, the homeless, the undereducated, the sick of this city, who need our help—and who need leaders at all levels of government who make their needs a priority rather than a point of debate.
The final important theme in this shared message is that we need not and should not fear what lies ahead. If God has work for us to do, as in the case of Moses, he will give us the support we need. We will move forward knowing his name. If God makes demands on us, we have the gardener who will care for us, build us up to do the work He has given us to do. Perhaps most bracing and most comforting at the same time is Paul’s assurance. God is faithful. That does not mean He will protect us from calamity. That does not mean he will spare us from tragedy. It does mean that God will not let us be tested “beyond our strength.” He will enable us to endure. He will show us a way.
My own most direct experience of this message arose through a terrible tragedy in my family, the accidental death of my 24-year-old son in 2004. You may have experienced tests no less terrible. If so, you may understand. In the depth of my despair I somehow found firm footing. I learned that I would fall only so far. I learned that I would be able to set aside the agonizing questions—why? why him? how could it happen?—in order to understand that in the midst of pain I could find strength. In the depths of doubt, there was a sense of God’s presence. And in the torpor of misery and anguish, there was a growing motivation to act, as constructively and productively as I could manage. It is in such circumstances that we learn that the bridge over the chasm will bear our weight. We will not fall. But we must continue to cross the bridge, because there are things we have to do. As St. Paul says, “God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with the testing he will also provide the way out so that you may be able to endure it.”
The commission to Moses. The edict regarding the fig tree. Paul’s summons to a life of faith and obedience, of risk and challenge. Together, these lessons offer a sober and supportive assurance for this reflective and penitential season. We are reminded as we approach the Eucharist that we must come, in the words of one of our Eucharistic Prayers, for strength as well as solace, for renewal as well as pardon. Strengthened and assured, we can continue our pilgrimage through Lent, through these days of lengthening light, as we approach the final act of our human drama and the glorious sunrise of Easter.