Seventeenth in a series of reflections on Mass readings during the Extraordinary Jubilee Year of Mercy
Third Sunday of Lent
Readings: Exodus 3:1-8a, 13-15; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12; Luke 13:1-9
It seems like “repentance” is Christianity’s dirty word sometimes, even more than the word “sin.” We can ignore the concept of sin all day every day, until someone says that magic word “Repent!” The word signals to us, like a jolt of electricity, that somehow somewhere we must have done something wrong, even if we don’t think or feel that we have. To repent something is to regret it, to be sorry for it. We can’t be sorry for something if we don’t understand why we should be sorry. And if we are prone to ignore or to misunderstand the idea of sin (Greek hamartia, a miss), then the idea of repentance (Greek metanoia, a corrective change of mind) is just going make us balk or get us angry. All sorts of images get conjured up of a God Who’s not just some old man on a cloud making arbitrary decisions about people’s fates, but Who’s now some angry genie itching to pop out of the bottle and say “Gotcha!” and send people to hell because they did something that felt a little too good. These images are proffered by hucksters and fundamentalists of all stripes, from Christians to atheists. And they are all wrong. The reality of repentance is far more merciful than most of us in the so-called “post-Christian world” dare allow ourselves to think, but it is one that requires us to go beyond ourselves and into the larger cosmic scale.
In today’s Second Reading, Saint Paul tells the people of the Church at Corinth about the Israelites who passed through the Exodus. They all enjoyed the same privileges, he says: they were “all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all of them were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” Why did this happen? As the voice of God indicates in the First Reading, the Israelites cried out against their unjust enslavement in Egypt, and God listened to them. He caused them all to be freed from enslavement, and He made a deal with them: He promised them all the same rich place to dwell, and He would give them all the same Law which they were to follow as obedience to Him and as example to their neighbors. He even went so far as to tell them all His own name – YHWH (for which “the LORD” is a substitute, since it is no longer pronounced) – to emphasize the great personal connection between Him and Israel. God’s chosen people were highly favored, and given blessings beyond measure.
Saint Paul goes on, however, to remind the Corinthians that “God was not pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the desert.” And this is where this idea of the “angry genie in a bottle” God can come from. Why would God bring these people so far and with such power just to destroy them? And the answer is, of course: He didn’t. He brought them so far in order to live, and to be fully alive. Yet He had made a deal with them. And no sooner were they free and established as God’s own particular people than they turned away from Him and what He expected of them, going so far as to make an idol of a golden calf to worship. But even then, for all their transgressions, they still did not have to die. Jesus Himself tells us in the Gospel reading why they died. In discussing the people Pilate had had killed as they were making sacrifice, and the people who died tragically in a tower collapse at Siloam, He says, “[D]o you think they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? …[D]o you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you: if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did.”
Israel’s mortal sin was not their transgression of the new Law; it was their lack of regret for doing so. They knew the deal, and they didn’t uphold their end of it. They knew what was expected of them, and they didn’t do it. We believers do the same thing all the time. We constantly fall short of the expectations of the less-constrictive-yet-more-demanding Law of Love, even when we’re trying. There is a reason that the Church is called “the sinless one full of sinners;” the Body of Christ is perfect, but its members are not. But here’s the kicker: these Israelites who were struck down in the desert – and not all of them were – were not sorry for what they had done, and so could not change their behavior. They willfully, deliberately, freely put their own desires ahead of God’s, and in doing so broke the deal they had made with Him for His blessings to them, and they did it without remorse and without regret. That is why they died; because they did not repent.
“These things happened to them as an example,” writes Paul, “and they have been written down as a warning for us, upon whom the end of the ages has come.” God gives us opportunity after opportunity (three of them are in this set of readings!) not simply to meet His expectations for us but to turn to Him when we fail to live up to them, to acknowledge that failing, to say that we are sorry, to resolve on a corrective course of behavior, and then to go out and try again. His expectations, contrary to popular belief, are not secret – see the Commandments, the Beatitudes, the Sermon, etc. – and this expressing of regret for failing to meet an expectation and this resolution to ensure it doesn’t happen again is itself an expectation! It’s why the Church has the Sacraments of Healing (Penance and the Final Anointing). It’s why the Mass begins with a general confession of faults and a prayer for mercy. It’s why we’re asked pray constantly, to enter into dialogue with God regularly to discern even better how we are to accomplish what He wants us to accomplish in our lives and situations. It is why the Incarnation, the Passion, the Redemption occurred, to close the gap even more between God and Man, between heaven and earth, by wedding them together in Christ and His Church. And, believe it or not, it’s why hell exists: so that those who unrepentantly reject God may choose to continue to do so for all time.
As I’ve said many times in this Jubilee Year, being “merciful like the Father” means showing no partiality, and that includes to our selves. To those who have accepted God’s deal, please remember that we are promised everything, but owed nothing. Educate yourself. Understand what it is you have signed on to. Realize that it is an unfathomably generous deal, but accepting any deal means accepting the terms, and that includes acknowledging when the deal has been broken. And know that it’s going to happen from time to time, but the only negative consequences you have to fear come from not acknowledging it. “Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.”