Today’s readings are the midway point in our Lenten journey, and today’s readings are all about the great journey of the Jewish people out of Egypt—the Exodus.
For many of us, the story of the Exodus is embedded in our psyche from stories we heard as children or movies we might have seen. When we think of the Exodus, we may imagine Moses parting the Red Sea, the burning bush, or the famous cry, “Let my people go!”
Particularly in this week’s second reading, St. Paul gives us a crash course on what the Exodus story has to do with Christians. He says that all of the generation that was released from slavery in Egypt saw the amazing works of God. Unfortunately, most of them fell away from their faith. Perhaps we’ve heard the saying “to whom much is given, much is required.” The Exodus generation was given many gifts, which made the consequences all the more dire when they fell into great sin.
Like that generation, we, as Christians, have been given a lot: the Church, the Sacraments, and the Holy Scriptures. Paul is warning us that we must not presume that because we have these gifts we’re home free. We must be on guard against desiring evil things lest we fall like the Israelites in the desert did.
Unpack the First Reading
Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15
Lent is a time for recalling salvation history. Last week’s first reading from the Old Testament recalled God’s promise to Abraham that he would give a land to his descendants. God tells Abraham that his descendants will go into Egypt for four hundred years before being brought out by God in the fourth generation to enter the Promised Land (Genesis 15:13-16). That time has been fulfilled in our present reading from Exodus, and Moses is Abraham’s descendent who’s entrusted with the task of leading his people out of bondage.
Egypt becomes a biblical symbol of evil and the oppression of sin and will continue to be a problem for Israel well after the scene we witness today on Mount Horeb. Even though God has freed us from the bondage of sin by Baptism, like Egypt we continue to fall back into old habits of behavior. Lent is a time for us to struggle to leave Egypt again. We recommit ourselves to our God, the God of our Fathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As sure as he is the righteous God of our sinful fathers, we are the sinful sons and daughters of our fathers. As such, we need his help to leave Egypt behind this Lenten season.
Unpack the Second Reading
This section from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians gives us a clear sense of how the earliest Christians viewed the sacred history of the Jews and their own sacramental worship. Paul cautions the Corinthians not to assume that because God has given them a Baptism in Christ and supernatural food and drink in the Holy Eucharist, he will not judge their actions if they stray. The missing verses (7-9) specifically condemn idolatry, immorality, and putting the Lord to the test; then our reading picks up again with a warning against grumbling of the kind that Israel exhibited against God in the desert exodus.
We ought to be watchful this Lent in making our reception of the sacraments as fruitful as possible and not presume that because we have the sacraments we’re home free. It may well have been that the Gentile Corinthians thought themselves superior to the Israelites who failed to arrive at the Promised Land. St. Paul reminds them that the experience of the Jews isn’t a remote history divorced from our experience but rather, a universal story with timeless significance. From those to whom much has been given, much will be expected.
Unpack the Gospel
We all have a tendency toward displacement. We see the faults of others and sometimes secretly relish their misfortunes. However, reform is the first imperative of the Gospel. Without the daily consideration of our failings, we can easily lose our compassion for others.
In our second reading, Paul was speaking to Greeks about the failures of the Jews, and in our Gospel reading, Jesus is speaking to the Jews who believed that the sufferings of the Galileans was somehow deserved. Jesus warns the Jews to beware of judging others. The fig tree was a symbol for Israel, and so Jesus tells a story of the owner of a fig tree who found no fruit on it for three years. It’s likely no accident that Jesus’ ministry lasted for three years and that he found little fruit among his own Jewish people. His warning to Israel is that it must reform in the coming season or be cut down. The Church always hears the warnings Jesus delivered to the Jews as being delivered to herself. As the new Israel, we’re always in need of reform.
In this week’s Opening the Word video (viewable at FORMED.org), the presenter, Dr. Scott Powell, points out that in the second reading, St. Paul tells his readers that all of the Exodus generation saw the mighty works of God but that most of the Exodus generation fell away.
What was the reason for this?
What lesson might we take away from this?
According to Dr. Powell, why did some of the Exodus generation want to go back to Egypt even after they had been set free?
Have you ever wanted to return to an old way of life that you have left behind?
Digging Deeper: The Virtue of Fortitude
All of us are sometimes tempted to go back and give up on a difficult task or mission, but God always calls us to courageously persevere. Even when the path is difficult, he will give us what we need to get through it. The virtue of fortitude allows us to be firm and strong even in the face of temptation and fear:
“Fortitude is the moral virtue that ensures firmness in difficulties and constancy in the pursuit of the good. It strengthens the resolve to resist temptations and to overcome obstacles in the moral life. The virtue of fortitude enables one to conquer fear, even fear of death, and to face trials and persecutions. It disposes one even to renounce and sacrifice his life in defense of a just cause. ‘The Lord is my strength and my song.’ (Ps 118:14) ‘In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.’ ” —CCC 1808
The Catechism of the Catholic Church is available online at www.usccb.org under “Beliefs and Teachings”.
Reprinted from this week’s Opening the Word leader materials with permission from Augustine Institute.