Landscape with Moses and the Burning Bush, Domenichino, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City, USA.
Moses said to God, “But when I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ if they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what am I to tell them?” God replied, “I am who am.” Exodus 3:13-14.
Today I am concentrating on the first reading from the Book of Exodus. The third chapter, from which today’s first reading is taken, is one of the most famous – and important – passages in Scripture. To set the scene, Moses was in exile from Egypt where he was, in a sense, a wanted man (read Exodus 2:11-15 to find out why). He became a shepherd, and one day, tending his flock, he noticed a bush that was burning, but not being consumed by the flames. Naturally he went over to investigate, and a voice from the flames called him by his name. He was ordered to remove his shoes, as the ground on which he stood was holy. He did. Then the voice announced “I am the God of your fathers….the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob.” Moses covered his face, as gazing upon God was tantamount to death. But that did not happen. In the proclamation which followed, God revealed three divine qualities : 1. I have heard [the Israelites’] cry of complaint against their slave drivers…” 2. Therefore I have come down to rescue them from the hands of the Egyptians… 3. Then Moses asked for God’s name: God replied, “I am who am.” Can you identify the divine characteristics revealed here? Look carefully. If God has “heard” the Israelites, it means we have a God who listens! Our cries do not go unheard; God hears all. Secondly, God knows why the Israelites are crying, because they are enslaved. So God intends to rescue them. That means we have a God of freedom, a God who loves liberty! We humans are meant to be free, to fulfill our destiny in freedom. And finally Moses asks for the divine name. The voice has self-identified as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; but that is not a name, it is a title. So the answer is given to Moses: I AM WHO AM, in Hebrew, יהוה or YHWH, which we are told is likely pronounced YAHWEH. It is the most sacred name of God, and to this day it is never spoken by our most devout Jewish brothers and sisters, hence the confusion of pronouncing it. In the 19th century it was thought to be pronounced JEHOVAH (and in the Old Testament, each time we see LORD in capitals, it is this sacred name which is written there). A strange name, one I can only imagine means that God is all in all. The revelation here is that we have a God of Relationship. A title is all well and good, but it does not lead to friendship and relationship. A title is cold, objective, distant. Once you know a person’s name, a relationship becomes possible. When I was teaching I would ask my students if anyone had a friend whose name they did not know. I would get a few volunteers now and again, and even they thought it strange. Could you really have a true friend whose name you didn’t know? Unlikely. But here is God Almighty opening the door to friendship, if you like, firstly to Moses, and through him to the Hebrew people. As far as I know, no pagan gods ever offered such a relationship. It was a remarkable step in God’s self-revelation. In sending us Jesus, we can legitimately search for such qualities in his ministry if we believe him to be God. Did he listen? He did so, even in extremis to the thief on the cross to whom he promised paradise. Did Jesus believe in freedom? Well, he released how many people from afflictions in which they were imprisoned? Consider Luke 8:26-33. Jesus encountered a man possessed by a “legion” of evil spirits, and released him from all of them and gave his freedom back. And so on with all those people he cured. He restored them all to freedom. Finally, did Jesus invite us into a relationship with him? Look no further than the Last Supper, and every sacred re-enactment since, which we call the Mass: take and eat, take and drink, this is my body, this is my blood. It is not possible to be in any closer relationship with anybody!
So this passage from Exodus helped us to understand God much more than ever before, though note that these qualities are not trumpeted or proclaimed out loud. We have to figure out for ourselves who and what God is. Perhaps that suggests that God treats us like adults, mature people who can distinguish for ourselves what types of people can be trusted or not. Someone who listens to us, respects our freedom and is open to relationship with us certainly evokes warmth and trust (and God has many other qualities too). Today’s revelations teach us a few things too. If God listens, then so should we. If God loves freedom, then we should respect our own freedom and use it wisely, and acknowledge the freedom of others; possessiveness of anyone, therefore, is ungodly. Lastly, we should be open to relationship with those around us, be welcoming and friendly. I think it explains the troubles the Hebrews encountered for 40 years in the wilderness when God seemed to have abandoned them. They simply did not trust God; they did not think of God as a friend. Today’s gospel seems to expand on this, with Jesus’ call to repent our evil ways, because evil distances us from God who loves us. Remember sin can be defined as the absence of God. We have the freedom to reject the very God who gave us such a power; we have the ability to be deaf to his invitation to friendship. Yes we encounter life’s difficulties, described in today’s gospel, but they are no reason for us to simply blame God and go our own way without God’s presence, for with God as friend, those challenges become more tolerable and bearable. Think of the Lord’s final hours on the cross, where every sign of compassion and love had vanished. His bedrock belief in God’s goodness and trust delivered him from death itself. So he did not give up on God, and God did not give up on him.
This I think, is the message of today’s gospel parable. Firstly, and oddly, it is unlikely a fig tree would be planted in a vineyard; apparently its roots take up much more space than the roots of the vine. So, as ever, we are dealing with symbols. If the owner is God, then the gardener must likely be Jesus. Jesus’ followers, opened up the message he brought firstly to their Jewish neighbors, represented by the vines in the parable, then to the unbelievers, the Gentiles. The fig tree could represent them (us). Gentiles might well take much longer to accept and respond appropriately to such a God. Considering the pantheon of gods and goddesses in their ancient world (and the pantheon of our modern idols such as drugs, money, sex, power), any one of us might take time to respond in the way God wants. But the parable does not have the fig tree being cut down and thrown into the fire; it – we – have been granted time – Lent? – to consider out proper response to a God who wants nothing more than a loving response to his love given freely to us. Let us use the time wisely, to reflect on our lives, our priorities and our responses to life’s trials and temptations. Lent is the time to do it.
The Vinedresser and the Fig Tree, Tissot, Brooklyn Museum, New York, USA.