Friday, March 1, 2013

Third Sunday of Lent

A funny comic strip features a teacher staring over the shoulder of a young child, busily working at a desk. “What are you doing?’ asks the teacher. “Drawing a picture of God.” The teacher protests: “But nobody knows what God looks like!” “They will when I’m done,” quips the youngster with a mischievous smile.

On a serious note, however, if you were asked to draw a picture of God, what would yours look like? Would your God be smiling, or would he instead be wearing a frown? I ask this because too many people- perhaps some of us here today-have in their minds an image of an unhappy, unsmiling God. They imagine God to be easily offended, in a constant state of animosity, eager to punish and crush the spirit. “Every day is an audition” with this frowning, displeased deity. A faith life with this god is filled more with fear and uncertainty, than it is with hope and peace. Confession becomes, not a joy-filled cleansing and restoration of a friendship, but a stay of execution.  

This is how God was understood by certain people in today’s gospel. They had been reflecting on two tragic current events: Roman soldiers having killed Jewish worshippers in Jerusalem, and a collapsed tower which crushed eighteen people to death. To them, these were unmistakable signs of the vengeance of a wrathful God.

Jesus, however, challenged their assumptions. He explained that these victims weren’t necessarily being punished for anything. They just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Jesus then told them a parable about a fig tree in an orchard.

The fig tree’s owner in Jesus’ parable had come looking for fruit for three years- which means that it had been nine years since planting. Unfortunately, the tree was barren yet again, and the owner demanded that it be dug out. But the gardener had another idea. “Sir,” he pleaded, “leave it alone for this year also.” These words were carefully chosen. In Aramaic, the language which Jesus spoke, the word for “leave it alone” is also the word for “forgiveness.” In other words, the gardener is asking the owner to forgive the fig tree once more- and he does!

Once we understand this, the meaning of the parable becomes clear. Jesus is the merciful gardener, and we are the barren fig trees. As the gardener was with the tree, Jesus is patient and forgiving with us. And just as the gardener promised to cultivate the ground and fertilize the fig tree, Jesus reaches out to us and involves himself in our lives- challenging us, encouraging us, guiding us- that we might grow in holiness and grace. In so doing, Jesus shows that he loves and cherishes us as his brothers and sisters.

We see this love evidenced throughout today’s Scripture readings. In Exodus, we heard how God listened the cry of his people and acted to save them. And the psalm reminded us that the Lord is kind and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in kindness. The truth is that God revealed in Jesus Christ is loving, joyful, compassionate, and forgiving.

If this is how you picture God, if the God you worship is one who smiles, then you are very blessed indeed. However, if you picture a frowning God, ask God every day to help you come to know and love who he really is. Because how can we be truly loving people, if we don’t really think that God is loving? How can we forgive others, or forgive ourselves, if we don’t think God is forgiving? How can we really be happy, if we think that God is always unhappy with us? If heaven is to spend an eternity with an eternally unhappy God, is that really where we hope to go, or is it just better than the other alternative? The truth is that the saints in heaven are joyful, peaceful, and happy, just like the God in whose image they have been re-made.

Changing our image of God can be hard. You’ve probably heard the phrase: “You never get a second chance to make a first impression” This is just as true of God as it is with anything or anyone else. If our initial image of God is a negative one, it’s going to take hard spiritual and emotional work to change it.

This was the experience of a nun who has shared her story. When she was a child, her mother delighted to talk about family and friends who she was sure God was punishing for their wicked deeds. As a result, the young girl developed a sickly fear of a strict and menacing god- a fear which continued to haunt her as an adult. As a religion teacher, she would teach her students that God is loving and merciful. Nevertheless, she herself was obsessed by the thought of a God who punishes. Friends had advised her to meditate upon God’s goodness and to stop feeling guilty, but this had proved ineffective.

A helpful priest, however, knew that real change would take time. So he recommended that she begin a dialogue with her imaginary god of judgment and punishment, which she did. She actually thanked it for its efforts to make her into a person with faultless morals. But she also asked it to make way, little by little, for the true God of love revealed in Jesus. This may sound silly, but with the grace of God, it worked.

If you and I are to enjoy a healthy life of faith, we need to operate with a healthy concept of God. Each and every one of us needs to ask God that we may see him more clearly, so we might love him more dearly, every day. Because it’s a lot better to go through life walking with a God who smiles on us, than it is to cower in fear from one who frowns.

(My book of daily meditations for Lent is now available from Ave Maria Press: It is available also at Amazon: )

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