Friday, February 26, 2010

Third Sunday in Lent Year C

Third Sunday in Lent C
(Revised Common Lectionary)

Exodus 3:1-15; Psalm 63:1-8; I Corinthians 10:1-13; Luke 13:1-9

One of God's most significant self-revelations in the Hebrew scriptures, which also launches the riveting story of God's mighty acts of deliverance, begins with Moses going about the daily task of tending the flock of his father-in-law, Jethro.  The import of the revelation to come is signaled by something impossible-- a bush that is on fire but not consumed by the fire.  Having got Moses' attention, God calls to Moses, instructing him to to come closer and remove his sandals, "for the place on which you are standing is holy ground."  The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob speaks and tells Moses that the plight of their descendants has been noticed and God intends to liberate this slave people, bringing them eventually to their own land.  Moses is told that he is the one to deliver this message to Pharaoh.  Moses is stunned: "who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?"  Although God assures Moses that God will be with him, Moses wants an identity more specific than the God of the "ancestors."  God's response says everything and says nothing: "I AM WHO I AM."  The text then repeats the more traditional identity: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.

The psalmist alludes to a time of "wilderness," exclusion, isolation when his longing for "God, my God" is so intense it leaves him with a dry, parched taste in his mouth,  He also recalls another time when he felt God's intimate presence.  Uttering, singing, rolling around God's name in his mouth is more satisfying (for his 'thirst') than anything else he can recall.

Paul  retells the wilderness account of "all those who were baptized into Moses" as a cautionary tale for followers of Christ.  Do not succumb to temptation as they did, he writes.  "God is faithful, and he will not let you be tested beyond your strength, but with testing he will also provide the way out so that you will be able to endure it."

Only Luke's narrative includes this specific rejection of the preoccupation of some (especially in the community Luke was addressing?) to try to identify others who are in greater need of repentance than they are themselves.  While the two examples of the consequences of sin that Luke provides must have meant something to his readers are lost on us, his intent is still very clear:  "unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did."  Luke follows this unique teaching with a "parable," which seems to offer the possibility of a reprieve while "the gardener" continues to try to nurture a dead tree back to life and to productivity one more time.

Biblical narratives positively refuse to answer some questions, answer others in simple, direct, explicit detail and in reponse to others elicit irrepressible poetry and singing.

 God's response -- "I AM WHO I AM" --to Moses' persistent questioning about God's identity is a passage which many writers dubbed postmodern treat as crucial.   God's refusal to satisfy the human need to know/understand/manipulate God highlights alterity, the insurmountable human incapacity to capture the other/Other.  (Mark C. Taylor altered the spelling to "altarity" to designate a specifically religious emphasis.)   

In contrast to  such passages of defiant lack of clarity, biblical narratives about the treatment of others-- justice/love-- are  simple and direct.  Among the gospel writers, this is truer of Luke than the others.  In the interlude in his narrative, which is today's appointed gospel, only Luke addresses head on that all-too-human pull to make something more complicated than it has to be, (especially when it could also deflect self-examination).  Apparently some of his readers wanted to veer off into arguments about theodicy when Luke yanks them back to what he wants to write about-- being honest with ourselves.  And to sharpen the point, Luke adds a "parable" which is clearly meant to induce his readers to undertake this task of honesty with a reminder that the "gardener" is always ready to try one more time with even the most barren "tree" to try to make it productive again.

On the one hand, we just have to accept we are not going to get satisfactory answers to some of our most speculatively intriguing questions, but, on the other hand, the most urgent questions-- such as, what can I do with my life?--  have been fully answered in specific detail.  Because God refuses to provide answers for some of our questions to our satisfaction  but is passionate about justice, we can abandon the former and embrace the latter.  We can abandon the anxiety of getting all our questions answered, leaveing us now free to be infected with God's enthusiasm for justice.  We cancel our membership in the debating club and join a movement, a celebration, a campaign that is full of like-souled people chattering and singing about the same things-- (the most satisfying sensation the psalmist sings she has ever experienced.)

In The Way of Love, Luce Irigaray determines that because "God...escapes our gaze and our hold, truly seems to be the guarantor of the memory that the other exists."  God is "the guarantor of alterity as such."  (p. 159)  Hence, we shift from futile attempts to define God and, by extension, all others:  "I am not you and you will forever remain other to me, such is the necessary presupposition for the entering into presence of one and the other, of the one with the other." (p. 168)  When God speaks to Moses a relationship, not a debate, is initiated, which leads not to answers but to the creation of a community that makes the journey from slavery to freedom.