You have probably seen something like this in a class, or on YouTube. A test subject is seated in front of a monitor, on which there is a scene of two teams playing basketball – white shirts vs. blue. The test subject is told to count how many times the blue team passes the ball.
At some point, a gorilla strolls into the middle of the action, faces the camera and thumps its chest, and then leaves. At the end of the experiment the test subject is asked if they noticed the gorilla. Over half the time, they did not. The experiment has been repeated many times with subjects of different ages and cultures with the same results. Scientist call this ’selective attention’.
In reflecting on the story of Moses and the burning bush we heard as the first reading from Exodus, Hebrew scholars and Bible commentaries agree that there may have been others who passed by the burning bush before Moses. They were perhaps so focused on their task or on following their own path that they didn’t see the burning bush – selective attention. Probably others saw the bush but continued on their way, seeing but refusing to see.
Moses on the other hand not only saw the burning bush, he turned aside to approach it. He turned aside from his path, from his old way of life. He turned to God, and God, seeing that, called out to him. That turning made all the difference – for Moses, for his people, and for us today.
Things haven’t changed all that much in the centuries since Moses. Most of us are focused on our interior thoughts and do not see the bush burning in the wilderness. Or, focused on our life and on our problems, we may see the bush but choose not to alter our journey and turn towards it, not recognizing the closeness of God, around and within us.
The miracle was not in the burning bush. The miracle was in Moses seeing and turning towards God.
God makes himself known to those who seek, often revealing himself through angels and in nature. You see this pattern often in the Old Testament. The burning bush was a precursor to the pillar of fire that led the Israelites out of Egypt. The Psalms beautifully expresses awareness of God in nature: “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” (Ps 19). God made his will clear to Jonah by means of a great fish. And God revealed himself in the star that led the Magi to Bethlehem.
But nature can give us only a partial perception of God. From nature we can see the glory and power of God. However, wisdom is not found in nature, not in spirits, not in the burning bush no matter how wonderous, but in our moments of seeing, and in seeing to turn aside from our previous journey and towards God. Do we really notice these moments of seeing and make the connection that they are indeed holy moments of encounter with God?
The meaning of repentance is to turn, to turn towards God and so to come closer to him. Lent is a time for repentance. I suggest that this Third Sunday of Lent is a very acceptable time to see the burning bush, and seeing to turn aside from our own path, and in turning see God as fresh and new. It will make all the difference.
The Old Testament tells us how God reveals himself to those who seek him. But in the parable from today’s Gospel from Luke, Jesus flips the script. In Exodus, Moses went to search for the burning bush. In the parable from Luke, God is the one doing the searching. A landowner plants a tree and, year after year, searches for its fruit, but finds none. He orders the gardener to cut it down, lest it exhaust the soil any further.
If the tree was already dead, there would be no reason to order it cut down – it would no longer be exhausting the soil. If the tree had borne fruit, there would also be no reason to cut it down. Being neither dead nor fruitful, neither cold nor hot, God decides to banish the tree from his garden.
The gardener pleads for the tree, placing his own life between the landowner and the tree, saying “I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it”. In saying this the gardener gives hope that the tree can change the trajectory of its existence away from death and towards life.
In this parable, we must recognize ourselves in the tree that God expects to be fruitful. Instead of Moses looking for God in the wilderness, now God looks for us in the garden.
And who is it that sacrifices himself to care for the tree? None other than Jesus, in his role as the second Adam cultivating the garden.
The readings today emphasize the importance of repentance, of turning away from our natural lives and moving closer to God and so become fruitful. They also warn us of the urgency of our repentance, of redirecting our path to move closer to God. The year is long gone. When the landowner comes again, will he find you bearing fruit?
Jesus, in his love for us, gave us himself in the Church as ground in which to grow and be fruitful. He gives us the sacraments to nourish, heal, and guide us: Baptism to water the soil, Confirmation to strengthen us against the cold winds, the Sacrament of Reconciliation to prune off dead branches. Through the Eucharist he pours his lifeblood onto the soil to nourish us.
This Lent, amend your journey and your old way of life. Strip yourself of all that selectively blinds you. Be like Moses and turn towards God and God, seeing that, will call out to you.
It will make all the difference.