I would dare to say that most people tend to think of Lent as a time for stepping up acts of personal devotion and piety without really giving much thought to its real purpose, which is an invitation to repent of our sins, to be converted, and to return to the Lord our God with a pure heart. Like the Jews we hear about in the Gospel, who thought they were completely sinless and in good standing with God simply because they had been spared death in a local massacre, we too can fool ourselves into feeling that all is well. We also can imagine that we are in good spiritual shape and that we have no need for repentance precisely because no great calamity has come our way. The absence of misfortune in our lives doesn’t necessarily mean the automatic presence of virtue. One point that comes across very clearly in Our Lord’s teaching is that we are expected to be fruitful and perform good works that are pleasing to God.
Often it isn’t what we do wrong but rather the things that we leave undone which prevents us from growing in the love of God. The real heartache is that we are guilty of sins of omission and neglect of which we are hardly even conscious. Our lack of concern for others reveals all too clearly this form of personal selfishness and it highlights our failure to live the Christian life to the full. Without exception each one of us needs to make a better effort in caring, in sharing, in loving and in being available to our friends and neighbours. It isn’t possible to do this unless we undergo a rigorous discipline of denying ourselves many of the comforts and the luxuries we crave in this life.
The annual Lenten invitation to repentance is not merely a call to turn away from evil but a plea to produce in our lives the fruits of good living. And the biting question is whether our love for God is evident in our treatment and our respect of others. We can begin this process under our own roof and make a start at being more aware of and sensitive to the members of our community, our relatives, and the people with whom we share our lives. It’s so easy to take our nearest and dearest for granted and to forget that they are individuals in their own right who deserve respect. Outside of the family circle there are so many ways of showing love in the community. We can meet God by caring for the poor, the sick, the elderly and the lonely. All of us have received a tremendous amount from others. But how concerned are we about giving something in exchange? Are we takers and not givers, or do we ration what we give of ourselves to others? Reaching out to others in need demands getting out of ourselves and putting aside our selfish ways. The warning about the unfruitful fig tree is not given to frighten us but rather to remind us that the time for doing good is limited and fast running out. We can’t keep putting off good works indefinitely, otherwise there will come a time when there is no tomorrow and we will be found wanting.
Lent is tool; it’s an opportunity to be used, it’s an opportunity for taking a hard and honest look at our lives and asking how do we stand before God right now. If we find that we are so caught up with ourselves or with material concerns, so much so that we have given a back seat to spiritual things, then we have forgotten the real purpose of why God gave us life. The challenge confronting us, not only today but every day, is to dig over the ground around our hearts in the expectation that it will produce good fruit – fruit that will last.