March 14, 2004 Homily by Fr. Robert Altier Third Sunday of Lent
Reading I (Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15)
Reading II (1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12)
Gospel (St. Luke 13:1-9)
In the second reading today, Saint Paul speaks about his own people, the people of Israel, but from ancient times. He talks about how God had blessed them in so many ways, how they were all baptized into Moses under the cloud and in the sea, how they all ate the same spiritual food and they all drank the same spiritual drink. If we look at the first reading, we know that they had been blessed abundantly by God. The Lord had sent Moses to the people and revealed His Name to them. They saw the ten plagues in Egypt, all the various things that happened, and yet they were unfaithful to God.
Now when we look at the pattern of the people of Israel from ancient times (since Saint Paul tells us that all of these things were written for our example so we would be able to learn from it and not repeat the same pattern, which unfortunately happens in all of our lives all too often), we look back to ancient Egypt where the Israelite people were enslaved. When Moses first came to announce to the people that God had appeared to him and had sent him to tell the people that they would be freed from their slavery, they thought this was great news. They rejoiced to hear that God had visited His people, and then of course we know the story. The way that Pharaoh enslaved them became even crueler, and the people grumbled against God and against Moses. When God worked the ten plagues amongst the Egyptians, suddenly the people of Israel had faith. But then as soon as they walked out and got to the Red Sea and the Egyptian army came up behind them, they grumbled once again against Moses and against God. God opened up the Red Sea and let His people through, and when it closed upon the Egyptians and the Israelites saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore, once again they had faith. They walked a couple of days out into the desert, and when there was no food and no water they once again grumbled against God and against Moses. They got to Mount Sinai and Moses went up the mountain, once again they grumbled against God and against Moses and made the golden calf. Then for forty years they wandered in the desert because of their disobedience, and the same pattern continued.
They would have this sort of instantaneous faith when something extraordinary would happen. And as soon as things became difficult, the depth of their faith was demonstrated; they really had very little, if any. And Saint Paul telling us that these things were given to us as an example points out to us that most of these people, to whom God had revealed His holy Name and had shown Himself powerful through signs and wonders in Egypt and out in the desert, died in the desert. There were two from that group that made it into the Promised Land, and that was because they had been faithful. Beyond that, every single person who came out of Egypt died in the desert because of their infidelity to God. Saint Paul goes on in this reading today to remind us that we are not to grumble against God as the Israelites did; otherwise, we are going to be in the same boat.
Jesus tells us the exact same thing in the Gospel. He points out the way that some of the people had died in Jerusalem, as well as in Galilee, and then says that they are not the worst of the sinners. And He said, If you do not repent, you will all die just as they did. So we are called to a greater holiness. We are called to accept our share of the Cross. We are called to bear fruit for God, as Jesus made clear in the Gospel reading today. If we are not bearing fruit, we deserve to be cut down. It is not enough just to simply be there with nice-looking foliage; it is absolutely required that we bear fruit. And in order to bear fruit, it is made very clear what needs to happen: The gardener was going to work the soil and then he was going to put some fertilizer on it.
If you think about what God does in our own lives whenever He does the same thing, we grumble and we complain. We do not like being worked over, we certainly do not like the fertilizer being dumped on us, and yet it is the only way we are going to bear fruit. All of us know from experience how many times when awful things happen in our lives – the things that we did not want, the things that we do not even want to accept – the good that God brings out of it. Yet, every time it happens, we continue to grumble and complain. You would think that by now most of us are old enough to have learned and there should be enough wisdom developed within us from experience that we would not do that anymore. Thirty-five hundred years of example before us of people grumbling and complaining against God and we still have not learned the lesson.
We are being called by God to unite ourselves with Christ, to take up the Cross, and to walk with Our Lord. But many of us think we do not need to do that. The “American Way”, after all, is to make sure that we do not have to suffer anything, to make sure that everything is comfortable and easy. The Cross is a scandal to us, just as it was to the Jewish people of old; it is absurdity to us, just as it was to the Greeks of old – unless we can see it with faith. Not the kind of faith that shoots up out of no place because something extraordinary happened, but the kind of faith that comes only by working through the suffering and recognizing that God is faithful to everything that He has promised. We are the unfaithful one, and the only way we learn to be faithful is to go through the suffering, to continue to pray, and to be faithful in the midst of the trials.
What happens, however, is that for many of us when the trials end, we fall right into the pattern that Saint Paul warns against when at the end of the reading he says, “Anyone who things he is secure had better watch out because he is about to fall.” That is one of the most frequent pieces of advice that I give in the confessional. All of us have certain habitual sins that we have been working against for many years, and we get to the point where we have made it for a week, maybe two weeks, maybe even a month or two, without falling into whatever sin it is that we struggle with; and what happens is we fall into the same pattern that we have been talking about. We stop praying about it. We start thinking thoughts like “I finally overcame this! I’m not going to fall into this anymore. I’ve finally mastered it. I have overcome!” First of all, we recognize that we are not giving the credit to God but we are taking it for ourselves, and then we do not turn to God anymore. So as soon as we hear those words in our own minds, we must recognize that really what that means is we are leaning over the edge of the cliff and we are about to fall flat on our faces because we have just let the guard down. That is exactly what the devil is waiting for, and then he pounces with everything he has and down we go because we were relying on our own strength and we were no longer praying. This is precisely the point that Saint Paul is warning against.
When we look at the pattern of infidelity of so many people who have gone before us and then we look at the pattern of fidelity in the lives of the saints, the pattern especially laid out for us by Jesus Himself, the pattern followed by Saint Paul when he tells us that we are to be imitators of him as he is an imitator of Christ, we have plenty of examples of people who have lived the Faith, people who have been faithful to God in the midst of the trials, people who did not rely on themselves but continued to rely on God. It is that which we must do because all of us have been baptized into Christ, all of us have eaten the same spiritual food and we have drank the same spiritual drink. That is not enough to be able to say that we have it made. The people of old who did that died in the desert because of their infidelity to God. Jesus has made a promise for those who are faithful that they will live forever with Him. He has given to us a promised land of heaven; we do not want to die in the desert.
We need to be faithful to Him. He has shown the way of fidelity and He has given to us the example to follow. We have our choice. Both examples are written down. Both are there for our learning and as a warning to us. We can be like Jesus, we can be like Our Lady, and we can be like all of the saints who were faithful to God in the midst of their trials; or we can learn from the people of old and we will be unfaithful and we will die in the desert. The choice is ours: to choose Jesus and live, or to rely on ourselves and die. This is precisely the point that Jesus makes in the Gospel: If you do not repent, you will die like all of them.
* This text was transcribed from the audio recording of a homily by Father Robert Altier with minimal editing.