The Urgency of Repentance
Bible Reading for Today: Luke 13: 1-9
There’s a story of a man, who was sentenced to death. The man told the king, “Your Highness, if you execute me now, I won’t be able to teach your horse to fly.”
“Are you sure you can make my horse to fly?” the king was curious.
“Yes, Your highness in a year’s time,” assured the man, “If I don’t succeed then, you can put me to death.”
When questioned about the wisdom of this, the man explained, “Within a year the king may die, or I may die, or the horse may die. Furthermore, in a year, who knows? Maybe the horse will learn to fly.”
Whether the man was especially clever or the king was just naive is hard to say. But the story seems to embody two conflicting notions that emerge from today’s Scripture readings: first, that we need to be ready, because anything can happen at just about any moment; second, that the long-range view is the wisest.
There is clearly a sense of urgency conveyed by today’s readings. St. Paul tells the Corinthians that their spiritual ancestors were “struck down” to serve as an example for them. He suggests that this should make them wake up and take notice. “Forewarned is forearmed.”
The Gospel drives home a similar point: Repentance needs to happen now. Jesus makes it clear that the people who died were not singled out in any way; they didn’t “have it coming to them.” In fact, they were no guiltier than those listening to him tell the stories.
We know this sense of urgency from our own experience. How often after a plane crash or sea accident, we hear people say, “I was supposed to take that flight.” Or, “Luckily, my friend missed that boat!” “I was supposed to be in my office at the World Trade Center on September 11, when the terrorist crashed the plane into it.” The suddenness of the disaster brought us all to the realization that life is both fragile and uncertain.
It is very difficult to maintain a constant attitude of readiness and vigilance in our lives. One of the problems with the old cliché about “living every day as if it were your last” is that it would, if taken literally, bring our lives to a sudden stop. We wouldn’t wash our laundry for the coming week, or plan a meal for tomorrow.
We know in our more logical moments that everything could happen to us at any time, but our vigilance tires out. Like the man with the horse, we prefer to stall for time and take our chances.
Along with the call to repent immediately, our readings also hint at a long history of salvation presided over by a patient God whose hallmarks are forgiveness, and abiding care. As long as Moses and the people of Israel fell into doubt and fear and generally stubborn behavior, God gave them another chance. Even the name “I am who am,” suggests an abiding presence that has endured many fitful attempts at faith and will continue to do so.
Speculation about how much time we have left is useless.
We may have years to get our lives in order; we may have only hours. Our God is both patient and urgently demanding. Our task is simply to bear fruit so that whenever the “harvest” comes, we won’t be found wanting.
On Friday noon of July 20, 1714, the finest bridge in all Peru broke and plunged five travelers into the gulf below. Brother Juniper saw the bridge when it broke. He watched the five people fall into the canyon. And he wonders, “Why did these five die?” And this question sends him on a mission to prove or disprove God’s providence. But Brother Juniper never discovers why these five people died. Instead, he learns that they are no worse or no better than anyone who would have crossed that bridge ten minutes later.
Jesus tells the Jews, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent you too, will perish.”
Jesus turns toward the Pharisees and points at them and says, “Don’t worry about the sins of Pilate, don’t worry about the sins of the victims; worry about your own sin. For unless you repent, you will die, just like everyone else.”
Jesus points at us, his followers today, and says, “Stop running around assessing sin and judgment on people in this world. Stop looking for other people’s sins and condemning them. Look at yourself and repent of your sins, or you too, will die.”
This seems to involve a basic question: “Is suffering a punishment for sin?” One reason why the central message of Jesus that God is love is difficult to teach, is that many people assume that all suffering is punishment for sin. A God who would exact punishment is a God to fear indeed.
Jesus taught against this assumption. The Galileans who were persecuted and killed by Pilate are not to be assumed as the greatest sinners. Neither are those, who were accidentally killed when the tower fell over them in Siloam. These people were not being punished for their sins.
The Jews believed that suffering is a punishment for sin. They asked of the man born blind, “Who sinned? This man or his parents?”
Jesus taught us God’s merciful love through the parable of the Prodigal Son, the Lost Sheep, and the Woman Searching for the Lost Coin. He promised paradise to the repentant thief on the cross.
We, too often question God in the face of suffering and adversity, “Why is God doing this to me?” or “Why does God allow this?” “I’ve been so faithful to him. I go to Mass even on weekdays; I have not offended Him in anyway. I don’t deserve this. God is so unfair!”
God would say the same thing to us. God does not enjoy in the suffering people – be it for their sin or not. Sometimes suffering may be a call to repentance, or an invitation to grow in one’s faith and love of God. After all that is how Jesus showed us his love – by his passion and the cross.
However, there is a connection between sin and suffering. Sin always causes suffering. And the fact that sin inevitably leads to suffering and that accidental deaths do happen give urgency to Jesus’ message of repentance. One should repent now both because a failure to repent will simply increase suffering and because no one knows how long he or she will be on earth and have the chance to repent.
In order to teach the urgency of repentance, Jesus tells a parable in which he compares his audience to a fig tree that is not presently bearing fruit. The owner of the tree wants to cut it down, but the vinedresser, who has cared for the tree, wants to give the tree more time. However, even the vinedresser agrees that if the tree persists in not bearing fruit, it will have to be cut down eventually.
Repentance is an urgent matter. One does not know how long the opportunity to repent will remain. Lent is a time for us to dig into our lives to seek what needs to be turned over or cultivated so that we might be more fruitful in God’s eyes. We might first examine how we use the 24 hours we are given each day. Do we give the Lord a fair share of our time in prayer or service to others, or are we concerned with excessive pleasure seeking?
Next, we might give an honest appraisal to our level of forgiveness. Is there someone, whom we tend to shun or belittle, because we have refused to forgive that individual?
Lastly, we might assess our use of material possessions. Do we wisely discern between needs and wants?
We do not have to rely on ourselves alone to become more fruitful followers of Jesus. He is with us always to empower us to become the individuals God has created us to be. He is with us in the word we have heard proclaimed today; he nourishes us through the Eucharist to give us strength for the task ahead.