CONVERSION PRECLUDES DESPAIR OR VAIN CONFIDENCE IN THE GRACE OF GOD
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ EX 3:1-8, 13-15; 1 COR 10:1-6, 10-12; LK 13:1-9 ]
We are entering into the third week of the season of Lent. The Church continues to invite us to conversion and self-renewal. Yet this exhortation to conversion might not yet have been taken too seriously. This is because some of us either feel that we are too damned to be converted or because we are “not that bad” and so do not really need conversion. Today’s scripture readings caution us against such extreme attitudes of despair and self-confidence since both are obstacles to conversion and growth. We must respond to the call for conversion before it is too late.
Let us begin with those who consider themselves to be sinners and yet do not respond to the call to conversion. They feel that they are unworthy and hopeless as they are unable to overcome their sinfulness. They are like the Israelites who felt that they had no hope under the slavery of the Egyptians. This bleak outlook towards life is aptly captured in today’s parable when the owner of the vineyard gave up on the fig tree that had not borne fruit for three years, “Cut it down: why should it be taking up the ground.” Losing hope and falling into despair is self-destructive. It is a lack of faith in God, in divine providence and divine mercy but ultimately in oneself.
The scripture readings invite us to take courage. There is no need to fall into despair, for God loves us and is merciful towards us. The first reading tells us that God is with us. He told Moses, “I have seen the miserable state of my people in Egypt. I have heard of their appeal to be free of their slave drivers. Yes, I am well aware of their sufferings.” Our God is a God who cares and is very much involved in our lives and history. He might appear to be oblivious to our sufferings but that is only our perception. God is not a retired Creator, nor has He gone on leave.
Nay, the history of the people of God has always testified to us that in their crises they always experienced God as a God of compassion and love. Like the man in the gospel who said, “leave it one more year and give me time to dig round it and manure it; it may bear fruit next year”; so too, God is giving us time to come to terms with ourselves and take the path of new life. In God’s eyes, we are never hopeless or condemned. However, if we do not repent we will all perish as Jesus warns us and it might be too late.
Of course, some of us might belong to the so-called good people and good Christians. For this group of people, the invitation to conversion is not readily accepted as they are complacent and self-righteous. The problem is that we can be so confident of God’s love and mercy that we take Him for granted. One of the greatest tragedies in life is that because of over-confidence, many of us do not truly appreciate the gifts or the blessings that we have. Yes, many of us abuse the privileges and opportunities we have in life.
This was the situation of the Israelites in salvation history. Notwithstanding that God identified Himself with the sufferings of the Israelites when they were only slaves in Egypt, that they were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea; that they ate the spiritual food and drink that God gave to them in the desert; manna from heaven and water from the rock at Meribah; yet, after all that God had done for these people, “most of them failed to please God and their corpses littered the desert.” What a tragedy indeed!
This too was what happened to the Christians at Corinth. Like them, we might have been baptized into Christ and partaken of His body and blood, but we have taken the grace of God and our faith too lightly. We think that once we have been baptized, our passport is secured. We fail to realize that baptism is only the beginning of our journey to death to self in Christ. If we think that we are safe simply because we have been baptized and receive the Eucharist every Sunday then we are wrong. Without living our baptismal vows sincerely and living out the full significance of the paschal mystery when we receive the Eucharist, we cannot claim to have a share in the life of Christ.
Our over-confidence could cause us to perish like the Israelites and the Christians at Corinth. St Paul warns us, “The man who thinks he is safe must be careful that he does not fall.” The parable of the fig tree serves as a reminder for us. Although God is patient with us and merciful, yet a time must come for judgment. If we do not bear fruit, we will be cut down. Sure, He will give us time, but we cannot take His compassion for granted and make a mockery of it. He gives us one more year, but a time will come when we have to be accountable for our decisions. And then it would be too late.
That is why we must always be alert and attentive to the signs of God inviting us to constant conversion and self-renewal. Regardless of whether we are sinners or good Christians, we must not miss out on the grace for conversion and a renewal of our faith during this season of Lent. Like Moses, we are called to be more attentive to the signs of God calling us to the burning bush, that is, the presence of God, so that He can burn away our miseries, our selfishness, and hard-heartedness.
How should we pay attention to the burning bush in our lives today? It is highly unlikely that God would appear to us as He did to Moses at Mount Horeb. But He would certainly appear to us in similar circumstances. Just as Moses found God in the burning bush while he was shepherding the flock of Jethro, so too, God will speak to us in the daily circumstances of our lives. St Paul who studied the history of Israel and their blunders said, “these things all happened as warnings for us, not to have the wicked lusts for forbidden things that they had … All this happened to them as a warning, and it was written down to be a lesson for us who are living at the end of the age.” So it is in our history that we hear God speaking to us anew. That is why it is important to know the history of our fathers so that we might not repeat the same mistakes.
Contemporary events are also signs from God. Jesus responded to the disasters that happened during His time, namely, the Galileans whom Pilate slaughtered in the middle of their sacrifices; and the tower at Siloam which fell and killed eighteen people. Jesus did not speculate what could have been the cause of such accidents and incidents, unlike the Jews. Quite often, such speculation and rationalization divert us from looking at ourselves. Idle speculation is just another form of escapism from looking at the reality. This is usually the case, for when we read or hear of the misfortunes of others, we are more concerned about them than about ourselves.
God speaks to us through others’ misfortunes as well. Consider the gossips about the scandals of political and religious leaders. We gossip about their failures and human weaknesses. But have we looked at our own selves to see whether we are equally guilty and that we could even be worse than them? Instead of condemning others, we must learn from their mistakes and come to recognize ours as well.
Most of all, we must pay attention to the events in our personal lives, especially our successes, failures, and tragedies. Even though some of us might have suffered some crises in our lives, we do not reflect deeply and hence do not derive much from such events when they are meant to be God-encounters. Through such personal events, God is teaching and disciplining us. Instead of finding scapegoats for our miseries, we must take courage and confront ourselves. Instead of grumbling against God for our failures, we must see where we have failed. If only we have been a little more receptive, docile and attentive to our sicknesses and failures, we would have learnt to appreciate life, love, health, and people even more. Without such experiences, we often take our lives, health and loved ones for granted.
Finally, let us remember that the privileged place where God speaks to us is still within the Holy Ground, that is, the sanctuary of God in prayer. God wishes to speak to us through His presence in the scriptures and in the liturgy. Hence, above all, before we can even recognize the presence and signs of God speaking to us in our history, in daily events, and in our lives, it presupposes that we have already come to know Him personally in prayer and worship. Thus, if we are to be docile to God’s promptings in our lives, we need to pray and allow God to speak to us in the Holy Ground. If we truly hear Him in our lives and respond to His call to conversion and renewal, we will not perish but have eternal life. Otherwise, it might be too late.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
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