Wednesday, February 24, 2016

PREPARING FOR JUDGMENT


Third Sunday in Lent, Year C.  Lk 13: 1-9.
AIM: To bring home to the hearers the seriousness of judgment, without discouraging them.
How many people here can remember an old-style parish mission? There was always a sermon on hell. With all the eloquence at his command the preacher painted a grisly picture of everlasting punishment, designed to terrify people into repenting of their sins. We don=t hear sermons like that today. Have we given up hell? Or have we just decided to de-emphasize it? Today=s gospel, with its solemn warning about unexpected death and judgment, is a good opportunity to reconsider Jesus= teaching on this important matter.
Jesus= hearers tell him about two recent disasters: an atrocity perpetrated by the hated Roman governor, Pontius Pilate; and a construction accident which had killed eighteen unsuspecting people. In Jesus= day people assumed that the victims of such tragedies were being punished for their sins. Twice over Jesus contradicts this view. The victims were no worse sinners than anyone else, Jesus says. But their deaths were a warning nonetheless, Jesus says: AI tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!@ The story which follows, about a farmer and his barren fig tree, drives home this warning. It also does more, as we shall see.
Fig trees grew wild in Palestine in Jesus= day. They are mentioned more than sixty times in the Bible. A newly planted fig tree takes three years to bear fruit. So when the owner of this fig tree tells his gardener that he has been looking for fruit from it for three years, this means it had been there for six years in all. The order to cut it down was entirely reasonable. The gardener is an example of the incurable optimist. He wants to dig round it, to allow the rain to reach the roots, and to fertilize the tree. Nowhere in Scripture do we find any reference to fig trees being cultivated or fertilized. The gardener is suggesting extraordinary, heroic measures. He agrees with his employer, however, that if the tree is still without fruit after another year, it will have to come down.
The story contains a warning, but also encouragement. God is like the owner of the fig tree, Jesus is saying. God looks for results. There will be a day of reckoning. That is the warning. But God is also patient. He is willing to wait. He will even wait longer than necessary. Behind the figure of the gardener in the story C pleading for one more growing season, for extraordinary, heroic measures C we glimpse Jesus himself. Jesus, our elder brother and our best friend, knows our weakness. If we haven=t done too well up to now, Jesus pleads on our behalf for more time. That is the story=s message of encouragement.
In the gardener=s suggestion to wait one more year, to use extraordinary measures, we see God=s patience and generosity. In the agreement of owner and gardener alike, that if the tree remains without fruit another year, it must be cut down, Jesus warns us of the certainty judgment.
The story challenges us, as Jesus challenged those who first heard it by reminding them of the victims mentioned before the story. Those people were not expecting to die. They thought they had time C perhaps many years. Death overtook them when they were least expecting it. How many of them were ready?
Are you ready? Are you living as if this life, and this world, are all there is? Or are you conscious in daily life of another world? That your lasting citizenship is not here but in heaven, as last Sunday=s second reading reminded us (Phil. 3:20)? That means that we belong to a higher, spiritual world, with standards that cut across the standards of this world, with its continual emphasis on getting more, and more, and more, as the price of a happiness which, nevertheless, still eludes us?
Each day of our lives is a gift from our loving heavenly Father. He wants us to use his precious gift of time to become the beautiful, loving, open-hearted people he created us to be. God is patient. He gives us chance after chance. One day, however, there will no more chances. One day we shall be called to give an account of how we have used the time God has given us. Few of us have a century. 
This brings us back to the question of punishment, with which we started. The name for eternal punishment is hell. Does hell exist? Yes, it does. Does God send people to hell? The answer to that question may surprise you. God never sends anyone to hell. Hell is something we choose for ourselves. The Catechism says that hell is Aself-exclusion from communion with God and the blessed. ... God predestines no one to hell; for this a willful turning away from God (a mortal sin) is necessary, and persistence in it until the end@ (Nos. 1033 & 1037; emphasis supplied). The judgment which awaits us at life=s end is not the adding up of the pluses and minuses in some heavenly account book. In judgment God ratifies the judgment we have pronounced by the choices we make during our time on earth. 

AWe believe in hell,@ the English Church historian Eamon Duffy writes, Abecause we can imagine ourselves choosing it. We cannot know the secrets of other people=s souls, but we know enough of our own to recognize something within us which shies away from God, something which wants to close our hearts to others. There is no inevitability about our response to God or to other people: hate and fear, as well as love and trust, are close to hand. Hell, in that sense, is a perpetual calling within us, from which only the loving mercy of God holds us back. We can trust in that mercy, but to trust in God=s mercy is not the same as taking it for granted. We may hope for salvation for all humankind, even for ourselves: but hell remains a terrible possibility, the dark side of our freedom. But the last word in all this belongs not with our freedom, but with God=s grace.@

Grace is the theologian=s word for God=s love. God=s love will never let us go. He offers us chance after chance to turn to him, to produce the fruit for which he sowed the seed when, through our parents, he gave us the precious gift of life. Nourished by God=s love we can still produce rich and abundant fruit. Our lives can be filled with his goodness, his light, his generosity, his love. One thing, and one thing alone, can prevent this rich and abundant harvest: our own deliberate and final choice, that it shall not be.