Tender, Tough, & True (3rd Sunday of Lent-C)

3rd Sunday of Lent (C)
March 11, 2007

Readings: Ex 3:1-8a, 13-15 / 1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12 / Lk 13:1-9


By Fr. Chito Dimaranan, SDB

Today, some of God’s multi-faceted nature shines out in all three readings. God waxes tender in the first reading. He proclaims compassion for his suffering people through Moses: “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.” Along with the revelation of his name (I AM) came a revelation of his nature – a “kind and merciful” God (Responsorial Psalm).

St. Paul, though, offers us a glimpse into a contrasting picture of the same God - an image that exudes toughness. For Paul, who makes allusion to the same desert experience of the Israelites of old, a God who is compassionate and merciful to the upright, is also demanding and tough to those who knew nothing better than whine and complain about their lot during their desert wandering. “Yet God was not pleased with them, for they were struck down in the desert” (2nd Reading).

Contrasting, though, does not mean contradictory. No … God is not portrayed by Moses and Paul to be an ogre. Contrasting here is more akin to complementary … Each facet helps to form an integral, wholistic and total image of a God who revealed – and still continues – to reveal Himself to us his people.

The two contrasting images of toughness and tenderness find manifestation in Jesus’ actuations and teachings. First, the tender part … He makes it clear beyond doubt that personal suffering is by no means a direct effect of personal sin. God is not a mean and cruel God who pounces on every wrongdoing of man, woman, or child. “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way, they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means!” (Gospel). Not only God’s tenderness and compassion shine out in Jesus’ parable. His patience rings loud and clear in the parable of the fig tree: “Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not, you can cut it down.” This is a parable that points to more than just divine patience. It points eminently to God’s gracious magnanimity. It harks back to a truth that juts out of the totality of Scripture (beyond isolated passages) – the total truth that indeed, “The Lord is kind and merciful” (Responsorial Psalm).

Tender or tough? So is He, or isn’t He? Which is which?

We are in for a tough choice. Something in me tells me God is tender. But some part of me tells me, too, that He is tough. The readings today all give a balanced picture of both. God is tender. God is tough, too. But a third facet erases the apparent contrariety, if any. God is also true … tender, tough, and true. He is tender in His love. He is tough on account of that same love. And that love for us fickle and frivolous humanity is true … loyal, genuine, and unabashedly faithful.

God’s love for us is tender … He responds in kind to people who also respond to Him in faith and love. “To the upright I will show the saving power of God” (Psalm 50:23). God’s solicitous care for us is tough. His demands speak of His tough love for us all: “But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did” (Gospel).

In our times characterized by a whole lot of jaded hopes and failed promises, people find it hard to believe in anything. Many of us are cynical about our politically-confused, and terror-filled times. Many espouse DESOLATION instead of DISCOVERY as they wend their way gingerly through their own DESERT experiences. Failing to find meaning in their experiences of pain, their desolation does not lead to DEVOTION and attachment to a God who becomes increasingly distant and irrelevant to a people deeply steeped in what the late Pope John Paul II calls a culture of death. And as I shared with you last week, the challenge of our times is to remain AWAKE, AWARE, & ALIVE WITH AND FOR GOD, and hold on fast and long enough for us to see the transfigured glory of Christ, our Lord and God.

Human as I am myself, I find it hard even here and even now, to accept the egregious truth that “bad things happen to good people;” that I have been left behind by life holding the shorter end of the stick. At this point in my life, I feel exactly like what Manley-Hopkins’ refers to as “time’s eunuch” who “wakes and feels the fell of dark not day,” and who does “not breed one work that wakes.” Discouraged, and maybe, still far from the path that leads to DISCOVERY and DEVOTION, I can only find solace in the psalmist’s plaint: “Quare via impiorum prosperatur? Why do evil men’s ways prosper?

This Mass is for all of you with jaded hopes, faltering faiths, and limping loves. This Mass is for you and me, for we offer this together with Him whose love for us all is TENDER, whose demands from us all is TOUGH, but whose nature as a Lord who is KIND & MERCIFUL is TRUE. God is tender, tough, and true. This Mass is for all of us whose devotion may slowly be replaced by desolation and despondency. Among other things, the Lord asks us to imitate Him in His patience: “Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future.”

To this tender and tough God, we pray: “God of all compassion, Father of all goodness, to heal the wounds our sins and selfishness bring upon us you bid us turn to fasting, prayer, and sharing with our brothers. We acknowledge our sinfulness, our guilt is ever before us: when our weakness causes discouragement, let your compassion fill us with hope and lead us through a Lent of repentance to the beauty of Easter joy. Grant this through Christ our Lord. Amen.” (Alternative Opening Prayer).


[Dundalk, MD – March 14, 2004]

However much we desire certainty and stability, the glaring truth that besets us daily is really its opposite – the uncertainty of the times, the instability of everything on which our daily earthly lives are anchored … our jobs, our relationships, everything that we work so hard for like our financial security, our family unity and integrity, the trust that friends and colleagues alike have on us … All this could be snuffed out quickly and, at times, even unexpectedly. “Here, we have no lasting city…” “The world and all its pleasures are fast drifting away.”

Certainly, those who went through a horrific freak water taxi accident over the weekend at Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, and the scores who perished in a totally unexpected (though relatively common) ferry tragedy off the coast of Batangas (in the Philippines) two weeks ago, experienced first hand the fragility and uncertainty of life in this world.

This offers us all a good opportunity to reflect on what today’s readings tell us partly.

All three readings are a study in contrast. The first and second readings evoke solid certainty, reliable stability, and sure steadfastness. In a world marred by tentativeness and wavering trust on all fronts; in a society characterized by doubt and fear and worry, God reveals Himself to Moses as a picture of unmistakable and stable presence: “I am who am.” With unflinching authority, God even tells Moses: “I am sent me to you… The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob, has sent me to you.” In the world’s past and current atmosphere in which we find ourselves “under a cloud” and having to “pass through the sea,” St. Paul offers an analogy that speaks of solid certainty: “All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was Christ.”

The Gospel seems, at first blush, to stand in absolute contrast to what the first two readings speak about. A superficial understanding of the passage invariably leads to fear, taking it to mean that the Lord is warning us to repent, lest we suffer the fate of those unfortunate Galileans meted out a swift and cruel punishment by Pilate. Fundamentalists and those who subscribe to a “fire and brimstone” type of spirituality based not on God’s love but on an unhealthy and theologically unbalanced “fear” of Divine chastisement, would love to hear this passage again and again.

But the truth of Scripture comes not from an isolated parable, but on the totality of Scripture, which includes so many considerations including context and literary genre of scriptural passages. Jesus aimed not at instilling fear of being punished similarly. Jesus aimed at instilling the idea of being always prepared. Jesus was really focusing on the need for repentance and reconciliation with God so that what is considered a human tragedy from every angle, does not become worse that what it already is. The worst tragedy that can befall us is being far from God, far from the ultimate source of stability and certainty. An even worse scenario, much worse than suffering a totally unforeseen earthly tragedy, is that of being so callous and indifferent to the time given us by God, to bear fruit, as represented by His patience on the barren fig tree.

Today’s liturgy, therefore, is at once consoling and gently nudging. It speaks to us about how “merciful and gracious is the Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness.” But it also reminds us that “the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” It tells us through Jesus’ parable, that time, indeed, is running out, and that the opportunities to repent are not endless, and that now is the time to take part in the workings of God’s grace.

We are at the heart of the Church’s Scriptural-based teaching on the so-called “divine-human participation” in the reality of salvation. Salvation, as the readings today make clear, is eminently a divine act and eminently a human act. Salvation is both a gift and a task. Salvation is God’s work, God’s grace, but grace cannot take effect without human cooperation. Grace builds on nature. Grace is something only the good God can give, but it cannot take effect in our lives without our own personal investment. God saves, yes, but we ought “to work for our salvation, in fear and trembling.”

The word we live in is fraught with a whole lot of uncertainties. The mystery of human iniquity has made this world a very unpredictable place. Terrorists continue to pose a threat to the ordinary person’s safety. The political situation has become, to say the least, utterly deplorable in many countries. Self-centered and greedy politicians and so-called “public servants” continue to disregard the demands of solidarity and the search for the common good. In the world’s top eleven most corrupt countries, the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, with the ranks of the middle class disappearing into the mass of suffering, at times, despairing populace. And the wealthy developed countries continue to live like as if the world’s resources were unlimited, continuing as they do to use up what took the earth millions of years to produce and store. It is ironic that a small percentage of the world’s population spends billions of dollars to slim down while a great majority is scrimping and scrounging for the next meal, living (or partially so) in a state of perpetual fasting and abstinence! It is even more tragic to note how much money is put to producing weapons of destruction, and so little spent to eradicate hunger and malnutrition all over the world.

The world is not only an unsure and unstable place. What makes it so is traceable to one and only one glaring reality – the mystery of sin, the mystery of iniquity, which is the situation all of us are in. “All men (and women) have fallen short of the glory of God.” Humanity, as a whole, is like a small boat, teetering in a swollen sea of pride, selfishness, greed, and the insatiable hunger for more and more. Sin has reduced life in many cases to a gamble, a bet, a journey with no sure destination.

This is the world that could use a bit more of reflection on the ultimate good news. This is the world that could use a bit more of attention on and could set its sights “on things that are above, rather than on things that are below.”

This is the alternative that today’s liturgy offers us all.

We may never know what is coming up ahead. We may never know what will happen to our family, to the nation, to the world. But there is one thing we all need to know – the utter importance of being prepared come what might, happen what may. For the Christian believer, touched by the moving spirit of God’s Word, the important thing is no longer that of trying to know what will happen, or when it will happen. What counts as important for the Christian is what he or she can do in the meanwhile, what he or she can do to contribute, to take part in the workings of God’s grace, to pitch in his or her share towards the building of a more caring and responsible society anchored on social justice and solidarity.

The journey up ahead is long and difficult. Not only that … it will remain fraught with uncertainty. Alone we cannot go far. With Christ as rock, however, we will. His life, his suffering, his death and his resurrection … they all sum up God’s self-revelation from of old: “I am who am … This is my name forever; thus am I to be remembered through all generations.”

Fr. Vitaliano Chito Dimaranan, SDB
March 6, 2007 – Paranaque City, Philippines