The Gospel for February 28th, 2016: The Third Sunday of Lent
Here we go again. Another gospel that says, repent! I must begin by admitting the call for repentance grinds on me sometimes. It never seems to go away.
Today’s gospel addresses the very human tendency toward minimalism. That part of us that says to authority figures such as parents, bosses, law enforcement, and the government, just tell me what I have to do to be in compliance; I will give that much and no more. I think I am probably not alone in saying I do this also with Jesus and the Church.
The passage begins with a conversation between Jesus and some followers about a horrible atrocity committed by the infamous Roman governor, Pontius Pilate, against a group of worshipping Jews. Apparently, he had his soldiers kill these people as they were giving sacrifice to God. Recognizing the injustice of those circumstances—that their lives could be taken even as they were participating in a ritual that should grant them God’s favor and protection—they ask Jesus if perhaps the sinfulness of those who died was greater than their own. If this was the case, it would recast this tragedy as some sort of deserved punishment from God, and thus assure them that they who were “less” sinful and “more” devout were safe from death at the hands of an unjust government. Jesus gives them no such assurance, stating rather unequivocally, “But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” (5).
I can only make sense of this harsh warning by guessing that Jesus sees the motivation of minimalism in their question. Perhaps they were thinking because they adhered closely to Levitic and Mosaic laws they must be okay. God will protect them from death. This logic is the legalism of the Pharisees; it is the mentality of minimalism. With His words, Jesus shatters those delusions. We are all sinners, and we are all mortal. Therefore, avoidance of physical death, whether an unforeseen tragedy or a peaceful passing in one’s own bed, is not the issue. Instead, choosing life with God in both this life and the next one is the only concern. Jesus wants our hearts with nothing held back. This is why the challenge of repentance requires such frequent reminding, because to give our lives completely to Jesus is to deny our human natures oriented toward sensual satisfaction and physical survival. We are not exempted for good behavior or past sacrifices, allowing us to indulge our baser instincts from time to time. Simply put, our lives are not our own. Nevertheless, until the day we die, the temptation to hold something back will remain, despite all we may have done previously through God’s grace (and the temptation to take credit for all the good we have done previously in pride will remain as well).
So on the one hand, like the fig tree in His parable (6-9) that doesn’t bear fruit, we can be cut down at any time. And yet, Jesus is the gardener who can help us bear fruit so that we may live now and after our physical deaths. His persistent call for repentance is one of the fertilizers that can treat the barrenness caused by the selfishness of a minimalistic attitude. Every saint recognized at some point in his or her life that embracing the call to repent and serve Jesus, to bear fruit, is life itself and must be embraced daily.
So I pray that I too may embrace the call to repent every time it comes in the Gospel and in the opportunities to serve God unselfishly in the course of each day. May we all remember on this third Sunday of Lent that with the coming of Easter Jesus conquered death by giving His human life for us. My irritation with reminders that I can give more will always pale in comparison to His suffering on the cross. Any anti-authoritarian tendencies are quelled quickly in the light of His sacrifice.