The way of the cross: repentance

Tom Bartolomeo
2nd Sunday Lent A 2014
Genesis 12: 1-4a, Psalm 33
2 Timothy 1: 8b-10, Matthew 17: 1-9
Reproduced with Permission

Jesus expects from us the same faith and courage which Abram and his son Isaac demonstrated - a father ready to offer his obedient son's life to God. It is not so unusual. Many men have resolved to sacrifice themselves for the lives of others, soldiers and others. Jesus, the Son of God, was ready and told his followers multiple times that "the Son of Man would be handed over to the chief priests and scribes . . . to be mocked . . . flogged . . . crucified and raised on the third day". They were perplexed. They could not comprehend how Jesus who the Apostle Peter declared was the "Son of God" would agree with his Father's wishes and chose to die.

Had Jesus not risen from the dead his purpose in becoming man would have eluded the Apostles as well as us. (Matthew 20: 18-19).

Jesus took special measures to share his planned sacrifice with his three favored Apostles, Peter, James and John, a foretaste of heaven borne from his anticipated suffering. Later Jesus' Apostles would recall Jesus' purpose in dying when he had led them "up a high mountain" where "he was transfigured before them" and where "his face shone like the sun and his clothes were white as light." Jesus told them "to tell no one about what they had seen, until after the Son of Man had risen from the dead. So they kept the matter to themselves, questioning what this rising from the dead could mean. (Mark 9: 9-10).

Meeting Jesus soon after his resurrection the Apostles remained perplexed and Jesus had to break through their doubts and confront them, "Oh, how foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared! Was it not necessary that the Messiah should suffer these things and then enter into his glory?' (Luke 24: 25-26). At an earlier occasion Jesus had told his disciples and others: "I am the good shepherd . . . and I will lay down my life for my sheep . . . . This is why the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down on my own. I have power to lay it down, and i power to take it up again." (John 10: 14-18).

Unfortunately, many people today are scared away from the church which deals with death and encourages repentance not as some morbid exercise - but facing forthrightly the reality of death and pain in this "vale of tears", our world. In one fashion or the other we regularly witness the suffering of others or endure it ourselves. To seek out pain or penance for its own sake without a purpose would be morbid. Though pain often accompanies penance they are not synonymous. Genuine voluntary repentance serves a good purpose much as dieting and physical exercise lead to a better and healthier physical state. Repentance serves a metaphysical good, a healthier and stronger state of spiritual well being. We actually celebrate those who 'work through pain' to achieve some higher goal awarding them Congressional Medal of Honor or canonizing them as saints. Hope requires courage. "You gotta have heart. All you really need is heart . . .", goes the song. 'Cor'age and heart together, pun intended. The Apostle Paul linked hope with courage as "runners in a race". All compete for the "prize" - except with God all who cross the finish line are winners.

(1 Corinthians 9: 24-27). Saint Paul added, "I punish my body to enslave it" that the comforts and appetites of his body not determine his future. Only hope takes us to a future beyond death, and hope energizes repentance.

From another perspective we would also agree with Saint Paul: "We know that all creation groans and is in agony even until now. Not only that, but we ourselves, although we have the Spirit as first fruits, groan inwardly while we await the redemption of our bodies. (Romans 8: 22-23). Much of our "groaning(s)" are self-inflicted wounds when we inordinately succumb to our endless physical cravings and indulgences. Just a little more indulgence and we'll feel better the body pines, but the hangover is worse than the palliative.

But our world need not be joyless.

Released from the allurements of self-indulgence and sensual pleasure we are free to enjoy the wonders of nature which God created. Look at the birds of the air [Jesus reminded us]. They neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow. They neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you - you of little faith?" (Matthew 6: 26-30). Be happy, don't worry. Many penances lift unnecessary burdens off our shoulders.

Virtue is truly "its own reward." The virtues of patience, generosity, diligence, purity, kindness and temperance bring peace and justice into the lives of their practitioners unlike their counter vices of anger, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony which disquiet the soul.

Only love can soften our hard hearts and lead us to repentance. It all depends on sinners owning up to their unworthiness, abasing themselves in humility before God. The woman who knelt at Jesus feet while he was dining at the home of a Pharisee was a worthy penitent: "turning towards the woman", Jesus told his host, 'Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave me no water for my feet, but she has bathed my feet with her tears and dried them with her hair. You gave me no kiss, but from the time I came in she has not stopped kissing my feet. You did not anoint my head with oil, but she has anointed my feet with ointment. Therefore, I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven because she has shown great love. But the one to whom little is forgiven, loves little.' Then he said to her, 'Your sins are forgiven'." (Luke 7: 44-48) Then there is the Roman officer who could have ordered Jesus but pleaded with him to cure his dying servant. Jesus "said to him, 'I will come and cure him.' The centurion answered, 'Lord, I am not worthy that you come under my roof, but only say the word, and my servant will be healed. For I also am a man under authority, with soldiers under me; and I say to one, "Go", and he goes, and to another, "Come", and he comes, and to my slave, "Do this", and the slave does it.' When Jesus heard him, he was amazed and said to those who followed him, 'Truly I tell you, in no other man in Israel have I found such faith . . . . And Jesus said to the centurion, 'Go; let it be done for you according to your faith.' And the servant was healed in that hour," a servant who was loved by his commanding officer. (Matthew 8: 7-15). We can not forget the testimony of Jesus' disciples and Apostles who testified to their own unworthiness in writing the gospels years after their own conversions. Only Peter, for instance, knew the details of his abandonment and cursing Jesus that he "did not know the man", and the bitter tears he shed when the cock crowed for the second time as Jesus predicted. How would the gospel writers know unless Peter told them especially his young assistant Mark who first recorded that Peter "broke down and wept"? (cf. Mark 14: 66-72). And who else was the unidentified young man who ran naked into the night stripped of his tunic when a soldier tried to detain him at Jesus arrest unless it was John Mark himself? It added no real significance to the event except Mark's public repentance. (Mark 14: 50-52).

We need to also note that God may test our resolve and humility as he did with the woman who 'shouted out', Jesus cure my daughter. But Jesus "did not answer her at all. And [finally] answered her, 'I was sent only to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.' But she came and knelt before him, saying, 'Lord, help me.' [And again] he answered, 'It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs.' She replied, 'Yes, Lord, yet even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table.' Then Jesus answered her, 'Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.' And her daughter was healed instantly." (Matthew 15: 22-28).

We should never presume God's favor and aid. When Saint Paul, the great Apostle to the world, spoke about his salvation he did so with "fear and trembling". (1 Corinthians 2:3 and Philippians 2: 12). What are we to make of our penitental efforts?