Burning Bushes, Barren Fig Trees, and Us

On the Sundays of Lent, Bondings 2.0 will feature reflections by New Ways Ministry staff members. The liturgical readings for the Third Sunday of Lent are: Exodus 3:1-8, 13-15; Psalm 103: 1-4, 6-8, 11; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12; and Luke 13:1-9. You can access the texts of these readings by clicking here.

Problematic vegetation is the dominant imagery in today’s Scripture readings.  In the first reading, the well-known image of the burning bush, a plant on fire but not destroyed.  In the gospel passage, we hear of a fig tree which just won’t produce fruit and face the threat of being cut down. God is obviously a pretty showy and aggressive landscaper!

One theory (and there are many) about the symbolism of the burning bush that I have read is that it is a symbol of God’s justice and mercy.   The Bible often refers to God’s justice as an all-consuming power, but the fact that in this case the power is revealed but does not consume is taken to mean that God’s justice includes mercy.  This theory fits with the rest of the passage, which describes God’s willingness to show mercy to the suffering of the Hebrews in Egypt:

“I have witnessed the affliction of my people in Egypt
and have heard their cry of complaint against their slave drivers,
so I know well what they are suffering.
Therefore I have come down to rescue them
from the hands of the Egyptians
and lead them out of that land into a good and spacious land,
a land flowing with milk and honey.”

I like this God.  This is a God who hears prayers and answers them as people expect they should be answered.  If you are someone who works for justice for LGBT people, this is probably the kind of God you hope to one day meet and experience–a God who acts justly and mercifully to people who are treated oppressively.

But what about the image of God in the gospel passage?  The image of God in the parable that Jesus tells is not as re-assuring as this previous image.  The Gospel image, perhaps surprisingly, appears to be an image of a God who is unforgiving of failure and impatient for results.  I’m glad I’m not a fig tree.

Wait. Maybe I am one.

I think the introduction to this parable contains some important guides for understanding the behavior of the orchard owner (God) in the parable.  In the first part of the reading, Jesus is upbraiding his followers for a behavior which I think is all-too-common among us humans, especially us humans who claim to have faith.  They have been badgering him with questions about why others have suffered calamities, hoping that the answer will be that these people who suffered were being punished for their sins.  And, of course, the implication of that answer is that those asking the question, who have not suffered, have obviously not been judged by God as sinners, allowing them to be self-satisfied.

Jesus will have none of it.  His answer–terrifyingly direct–is:

“Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way
they were greater sinners than all other Galileans?
By no means!
But I tell you, if you do not repent,
you will all perish as they did!”

This seems to be such an important message for Jesus, that he repeats it almost verbatim.  God doesn’t punish people because of sin. God cannot be anything but just and merciful, kind and gracious, loving and forgiving, as today’s Psalm reminds us. But one thing God doesn’t like very much is people who feel self-satisfied and don’t repent.  God is not too fond of people who grumble about the sinfulness of others rather than focusing on repenting of their own sins.  The second reading warns us:

“Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure
should take care not to fall.”

Jesus uses the parable of the fig tree to illustrate God’s opportunities for us to repent, not a thirst for vengeance.  God wants the fig tree to grow and produce fruit. God gives it plenty of times (three years) and then offers a fourth year extension filled with care and fertilizer.  But if the fig tree does not cooperate, is that God’s responsibility?

I know that in my own work to promote justice for LGBT Catholics, I can often fall into the trap of self-satisfaction. We’re the good guys! Aren’t we?  Or are we?  Do we sometimes feel that because we think we are right that God is going to help us more–and in addition, throw in the smiting of those who oppose us, who we too-often think of as greater sinners than we are?  Gulp.  I’m afraid to answer those questions.

We need to do our work for LGBT justice in a spirit of humility, avoiding the trap of being so convinced of our own rightness that we start seeing those who oppose us as sinners, while we are on the side of the angels.

Our task is to rely on God and to repent of our own sins.  Our task is to rely on God’s justice and mercy to save us, not our own efforts. Our hope is in God, not in ourselves.

–Francis DeBernardo, New Ways Ministry



0 replies
  1. jorisheise
    jorisheise says:

    an alternate, but not contradictory, commentary on today’s GospelFebruary 28, 2016
    Sunday of the Third Week of Lent.
    The good news for the Day

    Some people were discussing with Jesus the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their rituals. The response of Jesus was: “Do you think that because of what these Galileans suffered, they were bigger sinners than every other Galilean? No way! I’m telling you, if you do not repent, you will all perish just like they did!” (Luke 13, 1-3)

    Like today’s news, people in those days heard about fatal accidents, murders—even mass murders, and robbery. A crane falls. A building collapses. A bad guy commits murder. …and everybody talks about it.

    Jesus, however, is into Good News. He realizes news affects us—and it is up to us to turn bad into good; a tragedy we hear about can shape our future behavior. In the event here an armed force quelled a protest group. In the lifetime of Jesus, Galileans rebelled constantly against Rome’s occupation forces and their Jewish collaborators. Here, when protestors in the temple/public gathering place got violent, authorities killed civilians.

    When something like this happens today–what is the Good News? You! The Good News is you—you need to repent! How odd, you may think. What does killing a protester have to do with me? What is the logic?

    Repenting means you change how you see things. You reflect on your instinctive judgment and how you respond. You re-evaluate your soul’s principles and prejudices. What do you see there? A brother or sister has died. Not as punishment for sin, but as warning advice to you—the bell rings for you to be ready, to wake up, to stand alert. Cherish your life and this world! Do good while you are alive! You may be in church when a heart attack, a racist shooter, or an earthquake happens by…to kill you—so live each moment! Be alert to see God’s call in your burning bush. You will die if you do not wake up to this signal of God’s Presence.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. […] In the gospel story, Jesus’ first response is to write in the dirt.  Some commentators say that this action is a message from Jesus:  by doing so, he is telling the accusers that the letter of the law is as transitory as letters written in the sand.  They need to find the law’s deeper message, which is a message of acceptance and mercy.  More importantly, they should look to their own lives to discover sin, not to search for it in other people’s lives.  Indeed, this same message, so important to Jesus’ ministry, appeared in the gospel story two weeks ago. […]

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