Thursday, February 25, 2016

Unless you repent

Third Sunday of Lent Year C

Today's gospel raises an issue that troubles many of us. God's justice. Why is it often that the good seem to suffer while the bad seems untouched? Is it because those good people were not really that good and were being punished for their sins. Such was on the mind of the Lord's disciples in today's gospel reading. Were the Galileans who died under the Roman governor, Pilate, and the 18 who were crushed by the collapsing tower of Siloam, subject of God's wrath and justice? In both instances, a tragedy occurred, the first caused by human malice, the second the result of a freak accident. Or perhaps far more worrisome, is our God an aloof Being who has no true care for the world? This is what the Deist would call the “clockmaker” God, a God who created the clock, wound it up, and left the scene. And so when bad things happen to good people many sometimes shake our fists at God and ask, “Is this how you treat your servants?”

But today’s gospel turns this whole issue on its head. Jesus reprimands them for having thought that those who died in these two tragedies were great sinners. Rather than becoming fixated on why bad things happen to good people and why good things happen to bad people, perhaps we should refocus our thoughts on something far more important – we need to turn to lens upon ourselves. When we are constantly dwelling on how God doesn’t seem to meet up to our expectations, we often fail to pay attention to what is expected of us. God is not the one who is on trial. It is ‘we’ who are being called to account for our response, our attitude and our actions. The million dollar question isn’t ‘Why does God permit bad things to happen to us?’ but, “when the Son of Man comes, will he find us repentant?” Time to heed Jesus’ warning: “unless you repent you will all perish as they did!”

Is repentance really that important? Would it still be relevant to speak of repentance or even mention the whole notion of sin during this Jubilee of Mercy? One of the most dangerous errors that has emerged not as the direct result of the Jubilee of Mercy or even a discussion of God’s mercy, is the notion that mercy dispenses with the need of repentance. So many preach and proclaim mercy without reference to our sinful condition. Such false notion of mercy argues that our sins aren’t really sins, or are no big deal, and that God doesn’t really care what we do because, after all, He is merciful. And by contrast those who do speak of sin and repentance are thereby unmerciful and mean. This error hides true mercy behind fluffy doors. It hides the truth that repentance opens the door to mercy, forgiveness, and finally salvation. Repentance is the key that unlocks God’s mercy.

Those who preach a mercy that does not demand repentance would certainly have to deny what Jesus said in today’s gospel, “unless you repent you will all perish as they did.” The inescapable conclusion is this: if one does not repent, he cannot be saved. This is exactly what the gospel wishes to convey to our minds. The most compelling challenge which Jesus throws to his disciples, a challenge already made by his precursor, St John the Baptist, is the call to repentance. The call to repentance inaugurates Jesus’ ministry and sums up what his mission is about: to break the shackles of sin that enslave humanity, to put us on the path of liberation from all oppression, and to teach us how to unconditionally love one another. To deny the importance of repentance is foolish indeed.

But what does it mean to repent? Striving to avoid sin and living virtuously is certainly part of what it means. But there's more. In the Gospels the biblical word used for repentance is the Greek word “metanoia” – a radical change of mind, heart, soul and action. It happens when one changes course and turns around to walk in the right direction. Metanoia means a life-changing conversion.

Repentance doesn’t mean going through life with your head down and permanent frown on your face. Neither is it confined to feeling remorseful for being so bad. It means start doing something good. Start practicing what you believe in.
Repent means start doing the things that you know you should do. If you are alienated from somebody, be reconciled.
If you are self-righteous in relation to others, humble yourself and start seeing the goodness in them.
If you have been uncaring toward the poor, now is the time to get some moral imagination and put yourself in the plight of another human being. Don’t just ‘pity’ the poor, show true compassion by reaching out to them.
If you have been callous about prospects for peace in the world, now is the time for you to start praying and begin working for those things in your own family or neighborhood that make for peace. Stop giving hell to your husband or wife or children or parents. Start being peacemakers.
If you have put your trust in the accumulation of things so that you are slave to a whole host of masters, now is the time for you to unload some of the stuff and to put your trust in God. Don’t just throw away your stuff, give it to others, to the poor. Make sure it’s not a shirt with holes in it or a trousers with a zip missing.
At the end of the day, repentance is not some negative, life-denying gesture. In fact, repentance doesn’t mean turning to a past way of thinking or doing at all. Repentance means turning to a new way. Repentance does not mean to change from what we are to what we were. It means to change from what we are to what we are going to be.

This is what the season of Lent is all about. At the beginning of Lent, on Ash Wednesday, these powerful words uttered accompanied the imposition of ashes on your head, “Repent and Believe in the Gospel.” Both the words and the imposition of ashes goes to the heart of what Lent is all about. Lent wishes us to focus on our mortal humanity. Lent seeks to prepare our hearts for Jesus' death on the cross. Lent is an invitation to consider our sin. In our day and age, in our sin-denying and positive thinking culture, this seems rather morbid. It almost does appear as if we Catholics idolise sin by virtue of the fact that we are constantly speaking about it, or as our detractors would claim, we are ‘hung-up’ on it. But, neither does Jesus or the Church belabour the points. Jesus calls us to repent not because he wants us to dwell on our sin but because he wants to get that barrier out of the way.

So, during this Lent, let us try not to be distracted by all the bad things that happening in this world and around us. There is no denying that they are very real. But more importantly, during this Lent, let us heed the words of Jesus who throws the challenge back to us, “unless you repent you will all perish as they did.” Lent heralds the beginning of a season in which we are invited to examine our hearts and get the sin out of the way so that God's grace can pour in all the more. So that the power of the resurrection can be all the more present and real in our lives and in the world around us.

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