Archbishop J. Augustine Di Noia, O.P., delivered the following homily for the Third Sunday of Lent (February 28, 2016) at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh.
Brothers and sisters in Christ. Just about a week ago the strongest tropical cyclone on record made landfall over Fiji in the South Pacific doing $500 million damage and killing 44 people. Were these 44 greater sinners than the thousands of islanders who survived?
The tragedies mentioned by Our Lord in today’s Gospel are like this one. Is there a lesson is to be drawn from stories like this? That the people who perished in them were greater sinners than others? “I tell you, No,” says Jesus; those who perished were not greater sinners than those who survived. Rather: Like the Galileans killed by Pilate and the eighteen souls crushed by the tower in Siloam, the people whose lives were taken by cyclone Winston were surprised by death. If the end of life can be so unexpected, then there is nothing to be gained by postponing repentance for our sins.
If you knew that your life was going to end on such and such a day five years from now, then you could delay repentance until a safe interval before that date. But we don’t know this—and for the most part, we don’t want to know. “These things are warnings for us,” writes St. Paul. What Our Lord wants us to think about is that the moment of death will be as unexpected for us as for the people who perished in these various catastrophes. “Unless you repent,” he warns, “you will all likewise perish.”
Our Lord introduces a parable to amplify this point. “Lo, these three years I have come seeking fruit on this fig tree and I find none,” says the owner of the vineyard. “Cut it down: why should it use up the ground?” God has been patient with our procrastination, with our failure to bear the fruit of repentance: the owner of the vineyard has come no less than three times to check on the fig tree. But he is encouraged to be even more patient. “Let it alone, sir, this year also,” says the kindly vinedresser, “till I dig about it and put on manure. And if it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.”
Thus the parable underscores Christ’s point. Although God is patient with our procrastination, he is not indefinitely so. The point is clear: we should not put off repentance until it is too late or until God’s patience runs out. Now is the time to repent.
The wonderful thing is that God’s patience extends over the whole history of salvation. For St. Gregory the Great, the three times that the owner of the vineyard has come to the fig tree signify the three great periods of the economy of salvation: the time before the law when our very natures formed in the image of God directed us to him; then the time under the law when Moses heard the voice of the Lord in the burning bush saying “I have seen the affliction of my people who are in Egypt, and have heard their cry….I know their sufferings and I have come to deliver them”; and now the time under grace when he comes to us in the person of his only begotten Son who gave his life for the sake of our salvation. Justly does he complain, declares St. Gregory, “that for three years he found no fruit, for there are some wicked men whose hearts are neither corrected by the law of nature breathed into them, nor instructed by precepts, nor converted by the miracles of His incarnation.”
On Good Friday, Christ will address us with the reproaches: “O my people, what more could I have done for you?” So much love and compassion has been poured into the work of our salvation that our hearts cannot fail to be moved as we hear Christ’s word to us today: Delay no more. Do not wait to be surprised by death. Do not try God’s patience a moment longer.
Let us throw ourselves on the mercy of God, to fly to the Sacrament of Penance, confess our sins and to hear Christ’s words of forgiveness and healing, receiving his blessing in the name of the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.