Third Sunday of Lent – Year C
[Exodus 3: 1-8a, 13-15; Psalm 103; 1Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12; Luke 13:1-9]
The other day I was in a car travelling along the Yellowhead highway on the north side of the city. At one point, we passed a billboard announcing the Yellowhead Trail Freeway Conversion, to be completed at a cost of one billion dollars. The driver asked me if the project includes the removal of all the traffic signals. When I said “yes”, he replied “Ooooh, that is going to take a long time.” It certainly is.
That is not the only costly conversion we have to deal with. In Lent, of course, we focus our attention on the conversion that needs to be undertaken in our personal lives, which is itself a very serious reconfiguration project. This conversion takes place through repentance, that complete change of mind and heart needed to live in conformity with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This conversion is often experienced as very costly, involving as it does the sacrifice of attitudes and behaviours to which we have become attached, but which prevent us from the faithful following of our Lord. Unlike the Yellowhead configuration, we cannot presume that we have a long time for repentance. What the Gospel is teaching us today is that we really have no time for delay. The time to repent and change our ways is always now.
This is the point Jesus is making at the beginning of the Gospel text. The immediate context is a discussion Jesus is having with people about recent calamities. In one, Pilate had arranged for some Galileans to be brutally killed. In another, people had died as the result of an accidental collapse of a tower. There was at that time a widespread assumption that such terrible events were God’s punishment for sin. Jesus dismisses that assumption outright, but then basically goes on to say that, since a sudden end to life can happen to anyone, the time to repent is now. We need to be ready. Judgment follows upon death, and we must not be caught unprepared. Repentance should allow of no delay.
If we maintain our analogy with the freeway conversion, we gain an appreciation from the Scripture passages about what is involved in Christian repentance. Let’s consider, first of all, that the reason for the reconfiguration of the Yellowhead is to improve traffic flow by the removal of obstacles. Repentance is the elimination of a mindset that stands as an obstacle to the flow not of vehicular traffic but divine grace. The first reading from Exodus gives us Moses as a good example of the mindset we must cultivate. God appears to Him and reveals His name as I AM. God is pure being, which means that nothing would exist were it not for the creative action of God. We are contingent and dependent, not self-sufficient. Furthermore, God reveals that He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This means that God, who is Sovereign and all-powerful, does not stand aloof from the needs of His people, but intervenes in their lives to save them, in this case from slavery in Egypt. God has a plan for His people, one to reconfigure not only their individual lives but also the entire trajectory of history, a plan that would be finally fulfilled in the death and resurrection of His Son, Jesus Christ. To put things another way, God must always be given the right of way. All things must flow in the direction he sets. As Moses bowed down in worship and surrender, so, too, must we. Any mindset that presumes to take control of the flow of life into our own hands stands as an obstacle to the divine plan. We remove that obstacle through repentance, by changing our outlook to one of surrender to the ways of God.
Another perspective is offered by Saint Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians. He exhorts us, his readers, not to be complacent and instead be careful not to repeat the mistakes of the ancient Israelites as they wandered in the desert following their liberation from Egypt. He is writing to us Christians who have been set free by Baptism from slavery to sin. Now, as we wander through life as disciples of the Lord, he warns us not to “desire evil” as did the Israelites. As we ponder our need for repentance, this point about what we desire is something to consider very carefully. Given the multiplicity of enticements on offer from our world, it is not uncommon to find our hearts drawn by desire to things that are not of God, that lead us away from fidelity to Him. This is what is meant by desiring evil. It is as if we set up our own system of traffic signals in our minds and hearts, by which we give God the red light and ourselves the green in order to give priority to the direction we establish. Just as we want to get rid of those troublesome traffic lights that others have placed on the Yellowhead, all the more should we be eager to remove those that we have established in our own lives. The grace of desire is not given to us in order to lead us in directions that alternate with the ways of God. When our desires create crossroads that place us at cross-purposes with the divine plan, we know we need to repent, and pray for a re-focussing of desire to correspond with that of God for us and for the world.
One final point. The Yellowhead freeway will not convert itself. Labourers have to work upon it in order to effect the conversion. Likewise, we need to be careful not to think that the conversion of our lives through repentance is something that happens without effort. We have a role to play, certainly, because we are each responsible for our exercise of freedom and must act accordingly. Yet the primary labourer is God Himself, who desires to bring about our conversion and works within our lives to lead us to the change He knows needs to happen in our hearts and minds. That is the point of the parable Jesus tells about the fig tree that must bear fruit and needs to be cultivated in order to do so. By the gift of our Baptism, we have been rooted in Jesus Christ, and what God expects of us is that our lives bear fruit in holiness. In the gift of Jesus and the Holy Spirit, God is Himself the gardener, who cultivates us by pouring out upon us His gift of divine love and mercy.
Let us, then, bring our need for conversion to the Eucharist this morning, where that divine cultivating mercy meets us anew. By the gift of God’s saving grace, may we truly repent of all obstacles we place to the free flow of grace, and do so without delay.
Most Reverend Richard W, Smith
St. Joseph’s Basilica
March 20th, 2022