24 March 2019 (C) Third Sunday of Lent

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection & Dialogue: God is love, but he cannot condone wrongdoing

A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

First Reading (Exodus 3:1-8, 13-14). The Lord said to Moses: “I am who I am”. Because his life was in danger, Moses fled from Egypt to the land of Midian, and married a daughter of Jethro, a priest of Midian. As Moses was looking after Jethro’s sheep, he came one day to the sacred mountain, called Horeb in one biblical tradition, Sinai in another. There he had an encounter with God which is central to the entire biblical tradition. First we are told that it was “the angel of the Lord” that appeared to Moses. In the Pentateuch mention is occasionally made of “the angel of the Lord” when it is clear that it God himself who is intended, and it is obvious that this is the case here. In the Bible God is often mentioned as manifesting himself to mortals in fire or in the flame of fire. Why a burning bush is mentioned in this instance is not clear. Here Moses is called by God to a mission, as prophets will later be. Removing one’s shoes at a sacred place is a custom attested among Jews, Muslims and Buddhists. God revealed himself to Moses as the God of the patriarchs (Fathers) Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but never made known his name to them. He made a promise to Abraham about his numerous descendants and the possession of the Promised Land, and is now about to fulfil that promise, as he has seen their sufferings in Egypt. When asked by Moses to reveal his name to him, the name that God gives himself is “I am who I am”, in Hebrew “Ehyeh”, from which the word Yahweh, the name of the God of Israel comes. Ehyeh in Hebrew means “I am” or “I will be”. The fundamental meaning of this divine name, then, is that God is there eternally, in the past, present and future, present not in any abstract sense but actively with his people, with humanity, bringing enlightenment with regard to his own nature, to the individual’s human nature, to humanity on its origin and destiny, to bring life and bring it abundantly.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 102 [103]). The Lord is compassion and love. 

Second Reading(1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12).The life of the people under Moses was written down to be a lesson for us. Paul spoke repeatedly to the young Church at Corinth on the numerous gifts conferred on them by Christ and his Spirit. They were richly endowed by divine gifts in many ways, But this community also had its weaknesses, and certain practices which were at variance with belief and behaviour proper to followers of Christ. Even the celebration of the Eucharist was not beyond serious reproach, as Paul will tell them later in this same letter. One weakness may have been that they concentrated so much on divine love and the free gifts given them by God that they had tended to forget their own shortcomings and sins, and the other basic Christian truth that God punishes such failures. They seem to have had a keen awareness that they, in some sense, were the new Israel, and had a good knowledge of the biblical history of Israel, particularly of the Egyptian bondage, the crossing of the Red Sea, the desert wanderings and the gifts of water and the manna. These latter were types of Christian baptism and the Eucharist. The desert wanderings, however, had another side, that of Israel’s sins, its “murmurings”, complaints, against Moses and against God, sins of idolatry and sexual excesses. The Bible also recounted how the people who so sinned were punished severely by God. Paul recounts this history, using a Christian terminology: the Israelites were baptized into Moses and the cloud. Using a Jewish tradition, rather than the biblical text, Paul speaks of a well (dispensing water) following them in the wilderness, and interprets it of Christ. Paul reminds the Corinthians, and all of us, that this Old Testament account has a message for all of us. God still punishes sins and failings. Christians should be aware of all this, and of human weakness and the temptation to self reliance. “Those who think they are safe must be careful that they do not fall”.

Gospel (Luke 13:1-9). Unless you repent you will all likewise perish. This passage of Luke’s Gospel has been chosen to remind us of two of the messages of Lent: Christ’s call to repentance and also God’s patience and longsuffering. The first part is built around two rumours then current on Galilee concerning deaths in Jerusalem, either through Pilate’s malice or through accident. Arising out of a belief that tragedy was connected with personal sin, questions arose as to whether these were greater sinners than others, Jesus implicitly replies in the negative, but calls for the need of repentance for all. Some readers may note that the first group is mentioned as being possibly “more sinners that others”, the latter “more guilty”. The word behind “guilty” here in the Aramaic language spoken by Jesus would have been “debtors”, which in this context simply means “sinners”.

            The meaning of the parable in the second part of this reading is quite clear: God calls for repentance but is patient with sinners.

B. Reflection & Dialogue with Questions of the Day: God is love, but he cannot condone wrongdoing

That God is love is beyond doubt. As the response in the Responsorial Psalm in today’s Mass says: “The Lord is compassion and love”. The evidence of both the Old and the New Testaments bear abundant witness to God’s love for the human race, for each individual. From the New Testament we need mention only the Paul’s letters and the fourth Gospel. In public discourse today the love and mercy of Jesus are often contrasted with what is perceived as the harsh, unbending attitude of the official, institutional, Catholic Church.

            However, if we are to properly assess both the Old and New Testaments we need to reflect on the purpose of the revelation of the One who said “I am who I am” as he revealed himself to Moses in the Old Testament, and of Jesus the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End, in the New. In the covenant with Moses God gave commandments and precepts to be followed. Jesus came to bring life to the individual and the human race, and to give life abundantly. But central to Jesus’ preaching of the kingdom is: “Repent and believe in the Gospel, in the Good News”.

            These are some truths that merit reflection in these our days of cultural and moral revolution. The message of Lent holds good for all times. It calls on believers to repent and return to Gospel values. Gospel values can scarcely be appreciated without contact with the living Christ, living among us, in particular in the Eucharist. Paul’s words still ring true for us all: “Those who think they are safe must be careful that they do not fall”. And while God remains love itself, we still have lessons to learn from early Israel in the desert, when many of them failed to please God.

Alternative Readings

The following readings from Year A of the Three Year Cycle may be used as alternative readings.

A. The bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Christian hope brings certainty.

A.  The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings).

First Reading (Exodus 13:3-7). Give us water to drink. In its biblical context this event took place at Rephidim, the last stop of the people of Israel in the desert before Mount Sinai. There was no water for the people to drink and they quarreled with Moses. The theme of this reading, and indeed of many places in the Pentateuch, is the “murmuring”, the quarreling, the complaining, of the people in the desert. The occasion for their complaint on this occasion was the lack of water. God promises that he would work a miracle for them at the rock at Horeb (another name for Sinai). This reading contains a promise of such a miracle of abundant water. As such this reading fits well with the gospel reading today in which Jesus promises a spring of living water, welling up to eternal life, for those who believe in him. This episode of the miracle from the rock is narrated again in Numbers 20:1-13, where the water is said to have come abundantly from the rock. In the Pentateuch there are a number of references to water and a rock with Israel during the desert wanderings. From these a Jewish tradition originated saying that a rock-shaped well followed the Israelites during their journeying, to give them water. Paul refers to this tradition (1 Corinthians 10:4). That rock was a symbol of Christ. Two symbolic place-names are given for the site of this miracle of water from the rock – Massah and Meribah, in Hebrew meaning respectively “trial” and “contention”. The people tried, tempted God, and quarreled.

Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 94[95]). O that today you would listen to his voice: “Harden not your hearts”.

Second Reading (Romans 5:1-2, 5-8). The love of God has been poured into our hearts by the Holy Spirit which has been given us. This reading has many profound messages for us. To begin with, we are reminded of the fundamental truth that we are justified, made friends of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, through grace, not through our own good works. That friendship with God brings peace, the peace which Jesus promised, peace of soul that is not something human but is the activity of the Holy Spirit in both body and souls. Paul was very strongly opposed to any human boasting of one’s actions as meriting favour with God. Salvation comes through divine grace, not through human actions. However, he reminds us today, there is something we can boast about and that is looking forward to God’s glory, to the glory in store for us. That glory is already within believers in an incipient way through justification and grace, through baptism and the Christian life. This hope is quite distinct from what is humanly called hope. It is sure, certain; it does not deceive, because it is a gift of God that brings certainty. This hope and the certainty that goes with it is linked to the love of God and of Jesus for us, love shown in the death of Jesus for sinful humanity, for each one of us.

The Gospel (John 4:5-42). A spring of water welling up to eternal life. This is a rather lengthy reading containing different themes. Central themes are the Samaritan woman, the well and water. In Jesus’ day there was deep enmity between Jews and the Samaritans, who were regarded by the Jews as heretics and not part of the Jewish people at all. This division seems to have had very old roots. There was enmity between the Northern Kingdom, Israel, with Samaria as its centre, and the southern kingdom of Judah. When the citizens of the Northern Kingdom were exiled in 720 BC pagans were brought in to replace them, and afterwards the population was a mixed one of Israelites and pagans. The Samaritans, however, regarded themselves as part of the family of the patriarch Jacob, and were awaiting the advent of a messiah, whose nature and mission remain unclear. A noted well in the area was connected with the patriarch Jacob. In the evangelist John’s writing, the episodes in this reading function at two levels – this earthly one, and at a spiritual level, to which the earthly ones point. Thus, the water from the well is a symbol of the water that Jesus will give his followers, welling up to eternal life, that is the gift of the Holy Spirit. The Samaritans worshipped at their own sacred site and the Jews at their Temple in Jerusalem, which led Jesus to speak of the coming age when both these would be irrelevant, and God would be worshipped in Spirit and in truth. His own hunger gives Jesus an opportunity to speak of his intense desire, his hunger, to complete the work the Father had given him, with the sowing of the Gospel seed and the ensuing harvest.

B. Reflection & Dialogue: Christian hope brings certainty.

A common feature of the world in which we live is doubt in matters relating to faith, doubt about elements of moral teaching, about truths of faith, even at times about the very existence of God. An assertion of a certain philosophy, prevalent today, is that there is no certainty on anything. All we can have is speculation, guesswork, rather than certainty, opinions that vary from age to age.

            An atmosphere of this sort adds to the difficulties on religious observance. Such doubt on fundamental matters is completely contrary to the teaching of the faith in matters relating to truths concerning this life and the life to come. Christian faith is thus described in the Epistle to the Hebrews (11:1): “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things unseen” (NRSV). Two of the terms used there call for our reflection: assurance, conviction.

            The assurance and conviction spoken of in this verse are not psychological attitudes of souls rooted in the human mind or soul. They refer instead to the divine, theological, virtue of hope, a gift from God that gives conviction which is beyond that which human nature can provide. This assurance and certainty bring with them a peace of soul, the peace which Jesus has granted to believers, and a peace that no one can take from them.