Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Unless you repent

Third Sunday of Lent Year C

“Thank God, I wasn’t there!” That was my first reaction when I saw the video of a speeding car on the Penang Bridge overtaking others in a haphazard manner and finally spinning out of control before hitting another car that plunged into the sea. It was all too surreal! “Thank God, I wasn’t there!” “Thank God, it’s not one of my loved ones or someone that I know! Thank God!” I arrested myself at that very moment for having uttered such a selfish and insensitive remark and using the name of God in vain. But I guess, we’ve all been there, whenever we hear of some tragedy or another, many of us have echoed that familiar refrain, “Thank God, it wasn’t me!”

The people, introduced at the beginning of today’s gospel, who were speaking to Christ of the recent atrocity were obviously troubled by the slaughter of their fellow countrymen while they were either in the Temple or on the way to the Temple to offer sacrifices. They too may have sighed with relief, “Thank God, it wasn’t me!” Their pain was not just confined to the killings but also extended to their sense of horror over the most horrendous sin imaginable – the desecration of the Holy Temple, God’s dwelling on earth. Pagan Pilate had given orders to his pagan soldiers and this cruelty was perpetrated in the Temple where pagans were prohibited from entering. A triple whammy!!!  Why did it happen? Couldn’t God have protected them? Were these Jews being punished? Well, many would have come to this simplistic conclusion. But our Lord did not give those answers, though He did give an answer. The Lord rejected the idea that these men were killed because they were more wicked than other people, that they were being punished for their crimes. No. He is emphatic; “They were not I tell you. No!”

Our Lord clears away the confusion about what is happening in the world. He clears away the rubble of nihilism that says there are no answers. He clears away the rubble of karma that says you get punished in this life for what you yourself have done recently or what you did in a previous life. What then is His response to the massacre of these particular people in the Temple, or those specific men and women on whom the building collapsed in Siloam?  

The first response was in the form of a rhetorical question, “Do you suppose these Galileans who suffered like that were greater sinners than any other Galileans?” With regards to the eighteen persons who were crushed by a collapsing tower, He would ask, “Or those eighteen on whom the tower at Siloam fell and killed them? Do you suppose that they were more guilty than all the other people living in Jerusalem?” To paraphrase these two rhetoric question in our present context: “Are we any different? Are we any better?” And the answer is – “Not at all!” And then our Lord adds the following clincher: “But unless you repent you will all perish as they did.” All men are alike – all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. There are no exceptions.

And just in case we believe ourselves to be privileged and exempted from God’s judgment and from the need to be accountable to Him, let us listen to what St Paul had to say to the Corinthians in the second reading. He reminded them that though the Israelites were all privileged to have “passed through the sea,” “baptised into Moses in this cloud and in this sea, all ate the same spiritual food and all drank the same spiritual drink... In spite of this, most of them failed to please God and their corpses littered the desert.” And St Paul adds that “these things all happened as warnings to us.” So are we any better, just because we are Christians? Are we any better, just because we abstain from meat on Friday, or say our prayers every day or come to Church every Sunday?  Not at all! St Paul warns us in the last line of the second reading, “the man who thinks he is safe must be careful that he does not fall.” So, don’t be presumptuous that you are saved from peril or judgment. Don’t gloat over the misfortunes of others, thinking that you have receive some special exemption or protection from God. Don’t delude yourself into thinking that you are more righteous than the other person, that they are destined for hell, and you for heaven. Perhaps, it could very well be the reverse. There is no moral superiority permitted for the Christian. A Christian who fails to repent would be equally at risk of losing his salvation than someone who does not believe in Christ.

Secondly, our Lord by giving us a parable of the fig tree planted in the vineyard, wishes to remind us that God may choose to be patient with us at the present moment and afford us time, sufficient time, to repent but we should not be so careless as to squander this opportunity; by not making amendments in our behaviour, lifestyle and direction in life. No one will be spared from God’s judgment at the end. That is why all of us need a Saviour, and that is why God sent His Only Begotten Son to be the Saviour of the world. In Christ’s death on the cross, we witness both the mercy and justice of God. We deserve eternal death because we are sinners; that is justice; but Jesus, because He loved us, died for us; that is the greatest demonstration of God’s mercy. It is only the mercy of God that keeps any of us alive. It is all of grace. It is none of my deserving. Even my salvation was because of His love and not my own doing. And we should never take our salvation for granted.

Many of you may know of someone you had loved, and who had died suddenly and tragically. And what seems unfair about this is that, some died young, and some died and suffered even though they possessed tremendous faith in God. This begs the question: “Were they being punished?” “Were they greater sinners than us?” “And if they were not, was God utterly unjust in His treatment of people – rewarding the wicked and punishing the good?” These were good people and yet death entered their lives. But today’s readings remind us that the Lord’s answer is nothing like what we would expect. In fact each tragedy, each death, each innocent suffering, each disaster, is God’s loudspeaker – His megaphone – calling us to repentance. The Lord is telling us that each of these deaths or tragedies should be taken as warnings or incentives on our part to repent, rather than charges which we can use against.

Death does not discriminate. No one is immune nor exempt. Death comes even to the lovely, and the good, and the young, and death is going to come to you and me one day. In what state will I be when death comes? Will I be ready? Will I have turned from my sins and turned to the only one, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world? Will He be my hope and salvation?” We often think that our goodness and fidelity to God will be rewarded by years of peace and prosperity and good health.  We never pause to think that this may not actually be a reward, but rather time afforded to us by a patient God who awaits our repentance. The greatest tragedy is not suffering, nor pain, nor disappointment, nor even death. The greatest tragedy is to abuse the time given to us to change the direction of our lives, to realign our lives with the will of God. The greatest tragedy man can suffer is to continue living our lives without giving a thought to God. If there should be a sign which we should place on our doorposts, or on our desk tops, in our cars on the windshields or as a sticker on our bumpers, or a tag attached to our keychains, it should be this, “Unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Yes, repent! Repent not only during this penitential season of Lent, but throughout the entire year. In fact, we should never cease to repent throughout our lives until our dying last breath. Repent – to turn away from sin and to turn to God. There is no life without it. There is no heaven without it. There is no hope of peace with God without it. So, the next time you hear of a tragedy, don’t be too quick to exclaim, “Thank God, it wasn’t me.” Rather, you should say, “Unless I repent, I too will perish as he did.”

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