In this beautiful homily for 3rd Sunday of Lent, Year C, Father Hanly looks deeply into the first reading about Moses to help us understand more fully today’s difficult gospel.
Readings for Mass
First Reading: Exodus 3:1-8, 13-15
Responsorial Psalm: Psalms 103:1-2, 3-4, 6-7, 8, 11
Second Reading: First Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12
Gospel: Luke 13:1-9
Recording of Gospel
Recording of Homily
Transcript of Homily
The first reading is one of my favourites and the present gospel of Jesus is not one of my favourites. If I talk to you about Moses you’ll be here all afternoon and if I talk about the present gospel it’ll only take me about five minutes.
I’m not going to give you a choice, so I’ll try to talk about both of them, because this is a wonderful gospel and it only comes up in Year C, and that’s every three years, in the time of Lent. And Lent is a very special time. It’s the beginning of spring time, as you know. The days are lengthening now and it is the sign that spring is here.
Moses’ story is the call of Moses, but you have to know a little bit about who Moses is and his background to understand the meaning of today’s gospel. At the time that we find Moses in the first reading, it is a time when Moses has already grown to manhood and had gone through many experiences, many of which were quite dangerous.
You remember, when he was born, his mother took him and put him in a little basket and tarred the sides and floated him down the waters, hoping that he would end up in the arms of the Pharaoh’s daughter who used to come down each morning and swim by the lake.
And you say what an odd thing this is. Except it was the time when the Pharaoh and the people were so frightened of how the Jewish people among them were multiplying, a decree went out that every male child should be killed and only the female children were to remain alive.
And so Moses, that’s how Moses got to grow up in the Pharaoh’s house and become almost like a second son. Because the princess found him and she took him into her heart.
And so it was that here is Moses. The Jew has become, once again, very prominent in Egypt.
For the first Jew to become prominent in Egypt is when Joseph (who was the son of Jacob) and his family were living in Egypt, and Joseph was given second place in the whole kingdom.
And why was that? Because he was a dreamer. As many of our earliest Jewish forefathers. They were dreamers.
Abraham was a dreamer. Because, you can tell, he was told when the night was filled with stars to come out and be with God and he would be shown a new place, a new home, a land filled with milk and honey, and he would become the father of a great people. And so this promise is really a dreamer’s dream. But Abraham believed and Abraham passed the dream on to his children.
Jacob. Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, fleeing from his brother in desperation because he had cheated his brother out of the birth right and he thought his brother would kill him. And he raced to his uncle far away across the desert.
But he slept and when he slept he saw angels going up and down on a ladder into heaven. That was his dream. A lovely dream, because he heard the voice of God saying, “Don’t be afraid. I will take care of you.” And when he rose from his sleep, he made an altar there. And it was kind of like a covenant.
A covenant is a love relationship between two people. Today, even in England, a marriage is called a covenant. It is the giving and surrendering of one person to another totally and completely.
And what God was saying: “I will be with you, and you will be with me, and it will be a covenant of love.”
And so it is that for 400 years the Jews were in Egypt. But a Pharaoh came, as the book says, a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph and how Joseph had saved the people by dreams.
For they heard that Joseph was an interpreter of dreams and they took him out of prison and he interpreted the dream of the Pharaoh to mean that he had better, for the next six years, work hard and bring wheat into his granaries, because for another six years there would be famine. And it came true, because all Joseph’s dreams come true. And so it was that the people were saved by Joseph the dreamer.
Moses had a tougher time. His dream probably was that he would be the second most important person in all of Egypt. And Egypt was the tremendous country of its time, one of the oldest civilisations of the world, and strong and powerful.
And, as he grew up, there was no doubt he became a little spoiled. He forgot that he was the son of a people who were enslaved for 300 years. And he forgot who he really was until he saw an Egyptian raise his whip and beat a Jew, a Jewish slave, and he was so outraged that he struck down the Egyptian and the Egyptian died.
Now the rule, of course, in Egypt was he who kills an Egyptian must die, no exceptions. And so he fled into the desert and he went to the place where he was discovered, it’s a long story, but he found Jethro.
Jethro was the father of six/seven girls, and they lived on the edges of the desert. And so he took up a place with them, because he had helped the girls in their distress, and he married one of them.
And now he had a second dream. The dream wasn’t that he was going to be the second greatest man in the kingdom. The dream was, well, maybe a little bit smaller. He’d settle down with Jethro, this lovely man who was a part a raiser of sheep, but also a kind of a priest in the desert and a wise man. And so he decided now his dream was going to be to have a little family and he married one of Jethro’s daughters and he began his next dream.
And then, one day, as he walks his sheep across the desert, they came to a place, and it was at the foot of Mount Horeb, which many people later say became, the name became, Sinai, and it was called, even in those days, Mount Sinai. And we know what Mount Sinai is. Mount Sinai is the place where God makes his covenant with his people.
And he sees a very strange sight. He sees a bush, a bush that is in flames. Well, that’s not such a strange sight. Somebody could have put a match to it or something. But the bush burning. But the odd thing was it wasn’t hurting the tree. The tree wasn’t being burned.
And so he decided to go closer and he led his sheep off to the side and he began to walk towards the burning bush.
And then he stopped because he heard a voice. And the voice said to him: “Moses, Moses.”
And he looked around and saw nobody. And he said: “Here I am,” which indicates that, being raised on the tradition of his people, that he knew that somehow the heavens were speaking to him.
And so the voice said to him: “Moses, take off your sandals, take off your shoes, because you are standing on holy ground.” And Moses did that. Even today, the Muslims, when they go into the temple, they recognise the temple as holy ground and so, before they go in, they take their shoes off, and go in barefoot.
Now God had plans for Moses. He had another dream now for Moses and this one was going to be quite exciting. But it was going to be quite dangerous and probably the worst of all dreams for Moses, but the best for the whole world because He said to him those famous words: “Moses, Moses, I have heard the cries of my people who are suffering in the land of Egypt, and I have made up my mind that I will lead them out of slavery and into freedom.”
Well this was an incredible promise, and yet, of course, this is the basis for the Exodus story, the exit of Moses and his people from the slavery of Egypt and into the desert in search of the land of milk and honey.
And the first place they went to was, of course, Mount Sinai. And, at the top of Mount Sinai, Moses disappeared into a white cloud, and they saw thunder and lightning and fire, all the kind of signs that spoke of the presence of the divine.
And when Moses came down, he brought with him the covenant that he had made with God Himself. And a covenant, remember, is an agreement. It’s more than an agreement. A contract. It’s more than a contract. It is the giving of two people, one to another. But in this case the covenant, one of those persons is God Himself, and the other is not just Moses, but his people.
And so it is that the long journey begins, of Moses leading his people, not merely out of Egypt, but out of slavery. Because they might have been free of chains, but they were still slaves in heart and slaves in mind and slaves in attitude.
And he had to make them into a people, a people who had unity, a people who recognised their dignity, a people who recognised that they were always worth walking on holy ground, and that the most important thing that they had to learn was to learn that before God, reverence, and that God was everywhere, and that the dirt under their feet was sacred because God’s presence was there. And the people that they met along the way and their own people, they also recognised the presence of God.
And so it is that they began to build a people, an exquisite different kind of people, a people who felt free and were given free choices, even if they misused the choices. But they were the children of God and they were walking towards the great destiny that God had selected for them as His own people.
Nice story. It’s a lovely story and you should read it. It takes a little bit of time, but it’s one of the great stories of history, because, without that journey, you wouldn’t be sitting here.
I always say this kind of playfully, but it’s true, that you have to become a good Jew before you can become a decent Christian. Because it is out of the covenant that Jesus makes, he is the answer, he is the promised Messiah who will fulfill the covenant and calls us to join that covenant that he has had all this time with his people and to become truly the people of God.
One point should be taken out of this and it’s this: because of the nature of the story and the understanding of the people, so many things become clearer for us. But one thing is most clear: that you are on holy ground, not because you’re in church, because God is everywhere. And if God is everywhere, it means everywhere is holy ground. And if God is one with His people, He is also one with all the people in the world, for all that He has created He loves as His very own. If it happens to be nature, it is nature. But He also loves deeply all the people that He has created and given them the power to love or to refuse love.
And that is the reason that during Lent we learn about this. Because we must begin to take the world seriously. And the world is taken seriously when we know that whoever we touch, whoever we come across, whoever enters our life or leaves our life, is in the image of God and one with Jesus our Saviour.
And when we treat them well, we are touching God and inviting Him into our heart. When we spurn them, ignore them, leave them go their way, we are losing not only their friendship, but we are losing and no longer in touch with God Himself.
That is why Jesus says, “The only commandment,” meaning the covenant commandment, “the only commandment now is you must love one another as I have loved you.” And the commandment is: “Love God, love your neighbour.” And it is only one commandment.
Today, we approach Lent. And during Lent, we must revise one thing within our understanding of our own faith. Faith is based on wonder. It is not based on following rules or regulations. Faith is based on awe.
When Moses and the Hebrews spoke of fear, they didn’t mean “to be afraid of God.” “God fearing” means the wonder that God would descend upon us and take up our lives and walk with us through our own world, touching it and healing it, because we are the messengers of His love, and we are the ones who He will work the miracle of one God under heaven and one family among all mankind.
And so, today, when we hear this story, we must remember who Jesus is. He is the one who gives us wonder. He lets us understand the sacredness of the world and the people in it. And no matter how much we tarnish it, and no matter how much we refuse to accept it, we know that the only response is the response of Jesus and the response of the Father who said He loved this world so much that He gave His Only Son who would die to heal it and to save it and to bring it home.
Therefore, when we speak of serving God, we are really serving ourselves. For when we serve each other, we touch God. When we love each other, we are loving God. When we dismiss each other, we are dismissing God.
This is the one irrevocable understanding of Christianity and Judaism: that God came to live our lives with us, to take up with us the good, the bad, the difficult, the painful, and, never alone, always struggling, but always, too, full of awe and wonder that such a God exists and all the wonders of the world are His gift to us to care for, to nurture and to love.
And so this kind of unhappy story, to a certain degree, is the heart of all Christian joy. We rejoice in the Lord always, because we know that He has made us one with Him and one with all human beings and one in the world and one in His love.
So we approach Lent with the understanding, this wonderful understanding, and say: “What can I do during this season of springtime with love, that I might become more and more aware of the grace of God which is everywhere?”
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This homily was delivered on 7th March 2010.
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