Once there was a man—we’ll call him Ned—who was big, strong, very athletic and capable, and also very proud. Ned was convinced that he was always right; he never made mistakes—or so he believed—and if anything ever went wrong, it was always someone else’s fault. One time a local community group sponsored a “refrigerator race,” in which a refrigerator was strapped to the back of each contestant; the object was to carry it as quickly as possible for a distance of ten yards. This was exactly the sort of thing Ned loved, and he signed up immediately. When the race began, however, the strap holding the refrigerator in place snapped, and down he and the appliance went. Ned’s pride was hurt more than he was, and he wanted to know who was to blame. The answer was obvious: the company that made the strap. Ned sued—and he was awarded a million dollars. On another occasion Ned’s son, who was also big and strong for his age, crashed the seat of a swing into the head of another boy, causing permanent brain damage. Ned, of course, couldn’t admit that he or his family were at fault; obviously a company that would make a swing set that could hurt someone was to blame—so Ned sued, and he won two million dollars. On still another occasion Ned was working in his yard, and noticed that his next door neighbor Mike was about to mow his lawn. The two men started talking, and they agreed that the hedge between their property needed trimming. Ned had an idea. Since Mike already had his mower out, he could start it up, and the two of them together would lift it up, move it back and forth, and use it as a hedge trimmer. This worked wonderfully—until Ned stepped in a hole and tripped, causing the mower to fall down and badly cut his hand. You can probably guess what happened next; Ned sued the lawn mower manufacturer—and the court agreed that he wasn’t to blame; it was the company’s fault. The saddest thing about this story is that all these incidents are true; they actually happened (Jensen, Lectionary Tales for the Pulpit, p. 49).
Many people agree that our legal system today is often irrational and perverted; some lawsuits that should be laughed out of court are instead considered seriously, and injustice occurs all the time. The truth is, however, that the legal system accurately reflects the state of our society as a whole. So many people reject personal accountability, wrongly call themselves victims, and blame others for things that are their own fault—and society encourages this, inviting them to do everything possible to avoid accepting responsibility while living an emotionally immature and crippled life. This approach may work temporarily in this world, but when we meet God, lies, rationalizations, and excuses will be useless. If we don’t admit our own moral responsibility now, we’ll never repent or be saved—and then we’ll have no one to blame but ourselves.
Sometimes Jesus has a tough message for us—and the Gospel of Luke (13:1-9) is a case in point. When people told him about some fellow Galileans who were murdered on Pilate’s orders when they came to offer sacrifice in Jerusalem, they expected Jesus to say something like, “Oh, no, that’s terrible!” or “I promise you, Pilate’s going to pay for that one!” Instead, Our Lord used the tragic event as a reminder that all people are in danger of a terrible fate—one worse than death— unless they repent of their sins. Jesus insists that we’re not supposed to assume people who suffer misfortune had it coming to them, nor are we to compare ourselves to others, especially in terms of morality and religious practice; no, when it comes to repenting of our own sins, we have more than enough to keep us busy. Indeed, there’s even a sense of urgency in the parable He tells. The worthless fig tree deserved to be cut down and thrown into the fire, but it was given one more chance to bear fruit. Jesus is saying that we can’t waste the chances we’re given to live out our faith; for all we know, today could be our final opportunity to repent of our sins and to grow in God’s grace. St. Paul (1 Cor 10:1-6, 10-12) offers us a similar reflection, saying, “Whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.” As Moses (Ex 3:1-8, 13-15) learned, God does care for His people and offer them salvation—but this undeserved gift is not one we can afford to take for granted or delay accepting.
Being a Christian doesn’t mean acting superior to others, but just the opposite: we have to be the first to admit that we’re sinners and are totally dependent on God’s mercy. The Holy Father has declared this to be a Year of Mercy—but that means nothing unless we acknowledge our sins and our need for the Lord’s forgiveness. If we truly believe in God’s love, we should be all the more eager to overcome those faults and failings which displease Him; if we love God back, we’ll show it by our efforts to be completely honest with Him and with ourselves. This is the purpose of the three Scrutinies we celebrate during Lent, beginning today. Our catechumens —now called the Elect—are invited to look carefully at their lives to see if there’s anything in their lives that might keep them from fully receiving God’s grace. These ceremonies, however, are an invitation to our entire parish to do the same thing. Is there anything morally wrong or unsatisfactory with our lives that God wants us to change, any sinful tendency or attitude that’s keeping us from growing in grace? If so, we’re much better off being honest about it now, when we have a chance to please God by overcoming it with His help, than we are in ignoring it, thereby making our eventual healing or cleansing much more unpleasant and harder in purgatory. The sooner we take responsibility for our sins, the sooner we’ll be truly free. This may mean examining our consciences every day, praying that the Lord may gently reveal our faults to us, choosing one particular bad habit to overcome or one strained relationship to repair, seeking the forgiveness of anyone we’ve hurt or taken for granted, and asking for God’s mercy as often as we need to, and most especially in the sacrament of Reconciliation.
Some people like Ned will sue, blame, or bully others in an effort to escape responsibility for their own faults and mistakes—and so they’ll be totally unprepared when they meet the Lord; they’ll find out that the longer the truth is denied, the more painful it becomes. Rather than taking this risk, we must be honest with God and with ourselves; we must do our best to use the grace and the opportunity He has given us. Barren fig trees are living on borrowed time; fruitful fig trees please Our Lord, and He promises that they will live forever.