Repent and believe in the Gospel! Remember you are dust and to dust you shall return! Don’t worry. You didn’t click on the wrong commentary. Today is not Ash Wednesday. But, at the halfway point of Lent, today’s Gospel for the Third Sunday of Lent echoes the themes of repentance, death, and redemption which are at the heart of the Lenten season.
In the Gospel reading from Luke, Jesus speaks with his followers about Galileans who are suffering and dying at the hand of Pontius Pilate. The account foreshadows Jesus’ own encounter with Pilate before his crucifixion. When he hears the report, Jesus says that those who suffer are no more sinful than anyone else, using the event as a way to show the universality of sin and death. Jesus also takes the opportunity to remind his followers that they must grow, change, and repent from sin throughout their lives, saying directly “I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did” (Luke 13:3).
Repentance permeates Luke’s Gospel. Early on, John the Baptist heralds Jesus’ ministry, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. In a well-known parable, the prodigal son squanders his inheritance but eventually returns home, seeking forgiveness and repenting for his actions. During the crucifixion, according to Luke, one of the criminals who is crucified alongside Jesus admits his own wrongdoing and poignantly says, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom” (Lk 23:42). At the end the Gospel, when Jesus appears to the disciples after the resurrection, he preaches to them and sends them to proclaim repentance and forgiveness of sins, and this mission unfolds in Acts of the Apostles.
So, what does repentance look like? Repentance requires an acknowledgement of shortcomings, a thoughtful reflection, commitment to change, and a request for forgiveness. Repentance is not only about saying, “I’m sorry.” The Old Testament gives us a useful way to think about repentance. The Hebrew verb shub means to turn or to return, and it can have a theological sense meaning to turn towards God or to return to God or to turn away from or abandon wrongdoing. It requires an intentional commitment to turn away from sin and turn towards actions that bring us closer to God and one another. The sacraments, especially Baptism and Reconciliation, can help to facilitate repentance, and we should look for a variety of opportunities and settings where we can commit to growth and change.
As the Gospel continues, we hear the parable of the fig tree which can inform how we think about repentance:
“There once was a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard,
and when he came in search of fruit on it but found none,
he said to the gardener,
‘For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this fig tree
but have found none.
So cut it down.
Why should it exhaust the soil?’
He said to him in reply,
‘Sir, leave it for this year also,
and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it;
it may bear fruit in the future.
If not you can cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6-9)
Jesus’ parables give us opportunities to compare ourselves to different elements of the stories. In this parable, we might see ourselves like the fig tree, perhaps not always at our best, not always producing fruit. I’m sure we hope that people will not discard us when we are at a low point. Thinking about the parable within the context of repentance, the gardener gives us an example of what we should do, especially during the season of Lent. Repentance allows us to turn our attention to aspects of ourselves and our lives that need more care and correction. The gardener acknowledges the ways that the tree has failed and commits to cultivating the earth and adding nutrients to nourish the tree and help it grow. The gardener asks for time, recognizing that renewal might not happen overnight. Then, the parable simply ends unresolved which I think is very fitting. The missing resolution and the lack of conclusion might signal that we need to finish the story. We have the opportunity to give time and care to nourish ourselves (and others too), and the results hopefully will be very positive! Today’s Gospel reminds us to be intentional about our spiritual growth and development, turning away from sin and turning towards God, so that we, too, may bear fruit.
Jaime L. Waters
Jaime L. Waters
Jaime L. Waters teaches Scripture at DePaul University in Chicago, Illinois. She is associate professor of Catholic Studies and the author of Threshing Floors in Ancient Israel: Their Ritual and Symbolic Significance (Fortress Press, 2015) and the forthcoming book What Does the Bible Say About Animals? (New City Press, 2022). Waters is also a contributor at America: The Jesuit Review of Faith & Culture. She holds a Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University, M.A. from Yale University, and B.A. from Boston College.
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