3rd Sunday of Lent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Our Lady of the Rosary, NOLA
Men do not like to stop and ask directions. Husbands, fathers, brothers – all men 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. It's probably a primal fear of showing weakness during the hunt, a fear of admitting that our 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 that she doesn't trust him. 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 made worse by a mistake, a mistake that can only be fixed 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.
Why is repentance hard? 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 good reason to give it up! We know that lying, stealing, cheating on a spouse is wrong, but we can be quick to rationalize the sin if it has a “good outcome.” 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 Really 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 back to God.
When Jesus is told about the Galileans murdered by Pilate, he asks the crowd, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! . .Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them – do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means!” Then he makes his point: “But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” So, we're to think that b/c these people failed to repent, God allowed them to be murdered by Pilate and crushed by a tower? No. Jesus point is that they died suddenly, unprepared. Who imagines being killed in a riot or flattened by a collapsing building? Death comes for us all. . .so, turn around and get back to God. It's better to admit defeat in your stubborn refusal to ask for directions than it is to find yourself dead and unrepentant.
Fortunately for us, while we live, God waits for us to return. Our Father is patient. Death is not. Jesus bears this truth out in the parable of the barren fig tree. Ordered to chop down the tree that bears no fruit, the good Gardener asks the Owner for a reprieve. Give me and the tree one more tree to bear fruit. I'll cultivate the ground, fertilize it, and take care of it. If – in one year – it bears no fruit, then I will chop it down. The natural end of the barren fig tree is postponed by the intervention of the Good Gardener. He looks at the poor tree and sees hope. Hope for a harvest brought about through his loving-care. So Christ – our Good Gardener – sees us. We are given the years, days, months we have left to bear good fruit. If – in the end – we fail to produce, fail to repent and return to God, we go into death the way we went through life: without God. As I said, fortunately for us, while we live, He waits for us to return. Three weeks into Lent, are you bearing the good fruit of repentance? Are you going out into the world and being Christ wherever you find yourself? Are you fasting, praying, sharing your talents and treasures with those who need them most? Are you bearing witness to and giving God thanks for His great mercy? Don't let yourself fall to the Gardener's ax b/c you failed to bear good fruit. Don't be too stubborn to turn around and come home again. It is better to admit defeat in your pride than it is to find yourself dead and unrepentant.
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