3rd Sunday of Lent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma
If you listen to female stand-up comics long enough you will eventually hear one or more of them ridicule men for being irrationally incapable of asking for directions. Husbands, fathers, brothers would rather wander lost in the wilds than stop at a 7-11 and ask the clerk how to get to where they are going. According to the comics, it all has to do with a fear of showing weakness during the hunt, a fear of admitting that their testosterone-enhanced ability to sense true north is defective. Given enough time, the Man assures his Woman, the Right Way will be revealed, and he will follow it to the promised destination. For her to nag him about stopping for directions, he insists, is a sign of mistrust, an admission of faithlessness. He knows where they are going. How they get there and when is irrelevant. But even scarier than the prospect of asking for directions is the possibility of having to turn around and start over. Turning around means that his inability to find the way has been compounded by a mistake, a mistake that can only be made right with a new beginning. As sensible as this sounds, you must remember that turning around and starting over raises the chances that the worst possible outcome might come to pass: he gets lost again. Isn't it better to wander lost, endure a little embarrassment, and eventually find the way than it is to start over and risk losing the path all over again? Jesus answers, “No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will perish.” Turn around and start over. If you are lost, it is better to go home and set out again.
What is the hardest part of repentance? Most of us would say that actually giving up our favorite sin is the most difficult part. But before we can give up our favored sin, we have to admit that this sin is a sin, a deliberate act of disobedience against God—otherwise, there is no compelling reason to give it up! At some level we know that lying, stealing, cheating on a spouse is wrong but we are usually eager to judge the degree of wrongness against the harm it causes. It was small lie to help a friend. I stole from a greedy insurance company. My spouse really doesn't care if I cheat. If the harm caused by our sin is less than the imagined good that results from it, we might consider it wrong but not Wrong. This sort of moral reasoning makes sense in a world where we measure good and bad as a delicate balance between pleasure and pain, harm and help. If more people are helped than harmed then we judge an act good. If not, we say our actions were bad. In this world, our goal is to cause more pleasure than pain. Starting over makes no sense because any pain we might cause is easily balanced by causing an equal amount of pleasure. Steal from the insurance company and give the money to a charity. Cheat on a spouse and then volunteer to cook dinner for a month. The idea of true repentance never enters the equation because there is no Right Way from which we might stray.
In a world where there are no objective moral standards, no gods to offend, no eternal consequences for good or a bad behavior, weighing harm against help is undoubtedly an excellent method of moral reasoning. For Christians, no such world exists. Our world, the world created by a loving Father, redeemed by His Son, and infused with the Holy Spirit, is a world of objective moral law and eternal consequences. And there is most certainly a god to offend. For us, the reality of sin and necessity of repentance is as real as trees, rocks, and the air we breath. There is no escaping the possibility, if not the probability, that we will get lost on the Way, that we will falter in the work we have vowed to complete. If sin looms large in the Christian heart so does the opportunity for repentance and the assurance of forgiveness. There is no shame in admitting defeat, turning around, doing penance, and making a fresh start. Even so, we are sometimes inclined to resist the call to repentance and persist in failure. Like the husband, brother, father who will not admit that he is lost and refuses to ask for directions, we stubbornly hold out hope that we will find the Way on our own. This is a lonely, frustrating, and ultimately futile means of finding our way Home. . .
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