Today’s homily is for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, March 20, 2022, and the readings can be found by clicking here.
It’s hard to miss the contrast between the Responsorial Psalm, “The Lord is kind and merciful,” and St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, “Yet God was not pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the desert.”…so much for kind and merciful! I believe the key to understanding is in the verse before the Gospel, “repent, says the Lord; the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”(MT 4:17) Many people today like to lean on the love and mercy of God; they remind themselves and others that the Lord is kind and merciful, but are quick to forget that the Lord is also just. God’s justice demands accountability; it demands that he give everyone what is rightfully due to them: honor to whom honor is due and punishment to whom punishment is due.
The traditional word to describe the sin of leaning on God’s mercy, and denying God’s justice is “presumption.” The Baltimore Catechism explained it like this, “Presumption is the rash expectation of salvation without making proper use of the necessary means of obtaining it.” It’s a lot like the notion of “Once saved always saved,” as understood that regardless of what I do after baptism, I will always be saved. Clearly today’s readings contradict such a position. Repentance is what’s required! Time and time again, we lean not simply upon the kindness of God, but on the mercy of God for those who humbly fall to their knees and seek forgiveness time and time again. As Jesus says, “If you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” And if you’re anything like me, repentance is a daily need!
When speaking to the Church, St. Paul even speaks of God’s generosity in providing the Church an example! God warns us, says St. Paul. “These things happened as an example for us, so that we might not desire evil things, as they did. Do not grumble as some of them did.” There is a clear comparison between those who perished in the desert, and the Church. St. Paul says, “All of them passed through the sea and were baptized, at spiritual food, and drank spiritual drink that was Christ,” a clear reference to the early Church’s baptism and Eucharistic gatherings…yet they were struck down as an example and a warning. St. Paul warns them, “Whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.”
The Second Vatican Council courageously affirmed those words when they wrote of the Church, “He is not saved, however, who, though part of the body of the Church, does not persevere in charity…All the Church’s children should remember that their exalted status is to be attributed not to their own merits but to the special grace of Christ. If they fail moreover to respond to that grace in thought, word and deed, not only shall they not be saved but they will be more severely judged.” (LG14) Yikes! Sounds harsh…but really it’s the truth of God’s justice.
The Catechism reads that there are two kinds of presumption. On the one hand, we presume in our own capacity, thinking we can save ourselves without help from God (lots of that going around today), and the second is that we presume upon God’s mighty power and mercy in the hopes of obtaining forgiveness without conversion, and glory without merit. (2092) Indications of the sin of the presumption would be putting off confession–especially in instances of grave sin, putting off amending our life and repenting for sin, being indifferent about the number of times we fall into temptation and break resolutions, thinking we can avoid sin without its near occasion, and by relying too much on ourselves and our strength and holiness while at the same time neglecting the wisdom of the the Church, the warning of Scripture, and failing to nourish our relationship with God through prayer, service, and sacrifice.
As we journey through this third Sunday of Lent, we celebrate that the Lord is kind and merciful, full of gentleness and compassion, but we remember also that the Lord is just, and requires conversion of heart and mind, repentance from sin, and a constant renewal of our resolve to follow him in the way of love and service. The lesson of the fig tree is a reminder that there is still time–cultivate virtue, avoid vice, and bear fruit…or be cut down.