Those of us who were raised on any kind of catechism, whether the pre-Vatican II Baltimore Catechism, the Dutch catechism that was popular during the 1960’s and 70’s or today’s Catechism of the Catholic Church, were introduced to a list of characteristics or “attributes” of God. Among them were such clearly defined traits as all-present, all-knowing and all-loving. While it is quite clear what these terms mean, when it comes right down to it, we must admit that we really have very little understanding of the nature of God. Today’s readings confirm this. Each in its own way reminds us that God and the ways of God are truly mysterious.
In the first reading’s account of Moses’ experience, the awesomeness of God is highlighted both in the description of a bush that was ablaze but not consumed and in the mysterious name that God communicated to the dumbfounded Moses. How could that extraordinary bush possibly be explained? It was certainly meant to catch and hold Moses’ attention and to alert him to the fact that he would never be able to comprehend fully what he was about to experience.
And what of the divine name? Scholars agree that it is some form of the Hebrew verb “to be,” but they are not in agreement as to which form. Is it “I am who am” or “I will be who I will be”? And even those who agree on the precise verb form do not all agree on its meaning. Is God claiming to be the source of all that is? Is God saying something about the future? Or is the very ambiguity a way of reminding Moses and those after him who “know” the divine name that God is indeed a mystery that will never be understood? This is a God who reveals and conceals at the same time.
The Gospel accounts of the Galileans killed by Pilate and the people who were crushed when the tower fell on them illustrate our inability to understand why God allows certain events to occur. The parable of the fig tree throws no light on this conundrum either. Instead, it points to the need to trust in divine mercy, even in those situations we cannot explain.
Few of us will have a burning-bush experience, but all of us have struggled to understand why tragedy seems to befall innocent people. Just recently we have learned of hundreds of people being swept away by raging waters and have seen entire neighborhoods ravaged by fire or destroyed by war. What did these people do to deserve this?
While this question is understandable, it does arise from a rather mechanistic worldview. In some situations, certainly, what we experience is indeed a consequence of our actions. Becoming ill from eating bad food is an example of this. But there is much in life that cannot be traced back to anything we might have done.
So what are we to do in the face of such ambiguity? The readings offer two major admonitions. In today’s Gospel, Jesus twice calls his listeners to repent, to reform their lives. If we follow this admonition, will it guarantee our safety? Not necessarily. But the parable of the fig tree offers us a second admonition: trust in the mercy of God.
Paul too insists on these two attitudes of mind and heart. He tells the Corinthians that the fate of their religious ancestors who suffered in the wilderness should be an example to them. Though sustained by God, they sinned. Paul exhorts his converts to be faithful and not to presume that membership in the community automatically saves them. They are required to live righteous lives and to rely on Christ, who is their true rock of safety.
This is really all that we can do. We do not understand the working of God, so we are called to trust that as the great Jewish philosopher Martin Buber taught, God is with us and God is on our side. When faced with tragedy and hardship, we may wonder about this. It is at times like these that we must confess with the psalmist: “Merciful and gracious is the Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so surpassing is his kindness toward those who fear him.”
This prayer may require tremendous faith and trust in God, religious sentiments that Moses was expected to have. He was called from the relatively trouble-free task of tending the flock of his father-in-law to assume the role of opponent of Egypt’s pharaoh and leader of an escaped group of homeless people. Real faith and trust in God are seldom easy to attain and foster. However, our God, though utterly mysterious, is truly “kind and merciful.”