Throughout the season of Lent the Scripture readings emphasize the themes of repentance, conversion and forgiveness of sins. They offer a consoling and hopeful message that we all need to hear at various times in our lives. Today’s passages develop those themes and challenge us to understand why repentance, conversion and forgiveness are possible at all. They are possible because the God revealed in the Bible is both just and merciful, both demanding and patient.
In many respects the account of God’s self-revelation to Moses in Exodus 3 encapsulates the dynamics of biblical religion. It presents God as both awesome and fascinating. The revelation is occasioned by Moses seeing a burning bush on Mount Horeb (Sinai). The bush appears to be on fire and yet is not destroyed. As he looks more closely at the bush, Moses hears a voice that is identified as the voice of God. Moses is told to remove his sandals because he stands now on holy ground, in the presence of God.
The content of God’s self-revelation is twofold. First, the God being revealed to Moses is the same as the God of Israel’s ancestors—Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. When asked for his name, God replies, “I am who am.” Over the centuries biblical scholars and theologians have puzzled over the precise meaning of this statement and over the origin of the divine name “Yahweh.” But at the very least “I am who am” evokes both the otherness or transcendence of God and God’s immanence in creation and in human history.
Second, this same God has heard the prayers of his people in the midst of suffering, and has determined to rescue them through Moses from their slavery in Egypt and to lead them into a “land flowing with milk and honey.” The exodus from Egypt was the most important and memorable event in ancient Israel’s early history. In the Psalms, Second Isaiah and other Old Testament writings, the exodus is often celebrated as the model or paradigm of God’s action on his people’s behalf. Psalm 103 is typical in praising the God who “made known his ways to Moses.” This God pardons iniquities and heals ills, redeems from destruction and secures justice and the rights of the oppressed. In short, the God revealed to Moses is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in kindness (Ps 103:8).
The Exodus also provided the occasion for Paul’s warning to some overly confident Christians in Corinth. Paul reminds them (and us) that most of those who participated in the exodus event failed to arrive in the promised land. Rather, because of their disobedience and rebelliousness God was displeased with most of them, so they were struck down in the desert. The merciful and gracious Yahweh is also just and demanding. For the Corinthians (and us) it is not enough merely to undergo baptism. Those who are baptized into Christ must also act accordingly or face the demanding justice of God.
Today’s reading from Luke 13 captures the apparently double message that the Bible gives about God and us. On the one hand, we must repent and reform our lives now. On the other hand, God patiently awaits our repentance and reform, though there are limits to God’s patience. Jesus makes the point about repentance and reform when asked about two incidents that were apparently well known to him and his questioners. The cases concerned some Galileans (probably insurgents) executed by Pontius Pilate and 18 persons killed by a falling tower. Instead of being drawn into a debate about cause and effect (and so about theodicy), Jesus takes these deaths as an invitation to us all to repent and reform here and now before it is too late. His point about God patiently awaiting our repentance and reform appears in the parable of the fig tree that repeatedly fails to bear fruit. God is willing to give it (and us) more time because God does not give up on it (and us). Nevertheless, God’s patience is not completely open-ended.
On closer analysis, however, it appears that today’s passage from Luke 13 does not really present a double message. It insists that we are called to repent and reform our lives here and now because God wants our repentance and reform. But God patiently awaits our repentance. We must not presume that God’s patience is entirely limitless, however; God is both merciful and just.
As Christians we believe that the God of the patriarchs who revealed himself to Moses as “I am who am” is also the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. This just God earnestly desires our repentance and gives us grace and encouragement along the way because our Lord is also merciful and gracious.