A caveat: This reflection does not guarantee warm and fuzzy feelings. To stress this warning, let me share with you this essay’s working title: “Are You Ready to Die?”
In the first part of our Gospel today, we hear about “the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices.” Some scholars theorize that Pilate must have ordered the slaying of a number of people who were about to offer animal sacrifices in the temple. We do not know much about this incident, but the main point of its mention seems to be that this group died suddenly and unexpectedly. The “eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them,” Jesus’ next example, shared a similar fate – a sudden and unexpected demise.
Our Lord then proclaims, “If you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” Does this mean that if we do repent, we will not perish?
But Christ’s disciples, who repented from their old ways and changed their lives, who might have abandoned Jesus on the cross but returned to his fold after the resurrection, still perished – and some experienced more gruesome deaths than the Galileans and the eighteen people cited above. According to Christian tradition, Peter, to whom Christ entrusted his flock after giving Peter a triple chance to make up for his triple denial (see John 18:15-27 then fast forward to chapter 21, verses 15-17), was crucified upside down. We are told that Paul, who had persecuted Jesus’ followers at first but who later on became an apostle of our Lord after his conversion on the road to Damascus, was beheaded in Rome.
We have heard of other saints and martyrs who were burned, torn apart by horses, and skinned alive. Surely, they must have repented. So why did they still perish?
I think that Jesus’ point was not that if we repent, we will not perish, but that if we repent, we will not perish as the Galileans and the eighteen people above did – suddenly, unexpectedly, without the chance to reconcile with those whom they might have hurt and those who might have hurt them. To repent is to start reforming our lives and making peace with ourselves and with others so that when we make an accounting of our lives before our Maker, we can rest in peace. To repent is to start preparing for our deaths. We will all die – that we cannot do anything about. But what we can do something about is how our relationships with ourselves, with others, and with God will be when we die.
In the second part of our Gospel today, we hear about the parable of the unfruitful fig tree. Threatened with the possibility of being cut down, the fig tree is rescued by the gardener who promises to cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it for one more year. It is so easy to focus on the second chance given to the fig tree and miss that there is also a deadline given for it to bear fruit. If after a year it still does not bear fruit, it will be cut down.
Does this mean that God’s mercy has its limits? Does this mean that while our God is a God of second chances and maybe third chances, he is not a God of fourth and fifth chances? If we are asked to forgive seventy-seven times, should we therefore not also expect God to give us seventy-seven chances?
God’s mercy is infinite, but we are not. Our time to act here on earth is limited. While God, I believe, is always ready to offer more than seventy-seven chances, we may not be alive by the seventy-seventh. Again, there will come a time when we will die, and we really do not know when this will be. Another thing to consider is how it will get harder and harder for us to change the longer we delay it. We get more set in our unfruitful ways even with the cultivation and fertilization that God lavishes on us.
One final point: Repentance is not just for our deaths. It is also so that we can live the best life we can starting today. It is not only for the hereafter; it is for the here and now. In the parable of the workers in the vineyard in Matthew 20:1-16, the laborers who had toiled since the morning feel shortchanged when those who began much later in the day received the same pay. But we should not feel sorry for those who had worked eight hours – those were eight hours well-spent in the vineyard of the Master! We should feel sorry for the workers who wasted the better part of the day not being in the vineyard.
When we meet our Master, whether we repent at seventeen or seventy (if we live that long), we will receive the same reward: life with him. But those who repent at age seventeen will have already been living with God since age seventeen. Those who wait until age seventy (and again, if they reach seventy) will have actually been wasting so much time.
Why delay living the best life that you can later when you can begin now? And when that life of grace and gratitude, of being forgiven and forgiving, of being loved and loving others begins, not even the most gruesome of deaths can take it away.
It was at the age of thirty-one when St. Augustine repented and began following Christ as closely as he could. Still, at age thirty-one, St. Augustine felt he had waited too long: “Late have I loved you, Beauty ever ancient, ever new. Late have I loved you!” So how old are you now?