A priest friend once told me that sometimes, after he’s heard confessions for several hours at a time, he doesn’t just get tired, he gets bored. “There’s nothing more boring,” he said, “than hearing the same sins over and over again, hour after hour.” And then he added, “Fortunately, God doesn’t get bored with them. He enjoys forgiving.”
Hearing that made me recall those words at the end of the book of Micah:
“Who is a God like you, who removes guilt and pardons sin for the remnant of his inheritance; Who does not persist in anger forever, but instead delights in mercy…” [Mic 7:18]Yes, God delights in mercy and forgiveness. That’s a good thing, isn’t it? And Jesus made sure we knew this when He told the apostles He didn’t come for the righteous, but for sinners. Well, if He came for sinners He must love to forgive. You see, God knows us far better than we know ourselves. He knows we all have our particular sins. He understands our weaknesses.
Because we’re naturally disappointed in ourselves, we’re tempted to think: Hey, that’s really not so bad. It’s a part of me; it’s just the way I am. I’ve even heard some people make the excuse that this is the way God made them. How can He expect anything better? Blaming our sinfulness on God! That’s even worse than saying, “The devil made me do it.”
This, of course, just weakens our sense of guilt and our fervor for repentance and change. It leads us to make false compromises with our weaknesses. It causes us to choose mediocrity over the striving for perfection God desires for us.
We can grow through our faults, but only if we don’t settle for them, but instead learn to live always on God’s forgiveness. Forgiving’s no big thing for God. On the contrary, He delights in it, because forgiveness is the completion of love. Have you ever thought about that? In forgiveness, love reaches its greatest purity, its greatest depth. In forgiveness, love is at its strongest. In forgiveness, love, especially God’s love, generates new life. God delights in us, in each one of us. He rejoices over us and, unlike us, he shows His love without inhibition.
Of course, if we see God as a kind of Almighty Umpire, we won’t be focused on his forgiveness, but rather on His punishment. Maybe that’s why we cringe when we hear Jesus tell the parable of the fig tree, especially when we hear those words “It has born no fruit, cut it down” [Lk 13:7]. That doesn’t sound very good. And so we try to convince ourselves that a loving God wouldn’t deal with us so severely.
And it’s about this time that the guilt starts to creep in, especially now, in this season of Lent, this time for repentance. But guilt is just a warning and should never lead us to despair. Yes, God will judge us, but He’s also a God of forgiveness. This was something Jesus’ disciples still had to learn. In a sense, although they’d never played baseball, they too saw God as the Almighty Umpire. For when evil happened to someone, they just assumed that God was punishing that person. This was simply a reflection of what they’d been taught. If someone lives a good life, good things happen to him. But if he leads a bad life, well, God will get him.
It’s amazing how many people, even many Christians, still think this way. A few days ago, a parishioner asked me how God could reward a certain wealthy celebrity with so much money when he lived such an immoral life. I simply suggested that God’s attitude toward money and possessions is evident by the fact that it’s spread around pretty randomly among both the faithful and the faithless. He really doesn’t care about it, and perhaps we’d be a lot better off if we did the same.
By adjusting our image of God to His reality, we can better understand how He wants us to live. This is exactly what Jesus does in our Gospel passage. He has to set the disciples straight.
In the parable of the fig tree, Jesus readjusts the disciples’ image of God and, if we listen carefully, He can help us do the same. The emphasis in the parable is not on the vineyard owner’s order to cut down fig tree. No, Jesus highlights the three years of patience that preceded this decision. The real emphasis is on the plea of the vinedresser: “Sir, leave it another year” [Lk 13:8].
Another year…one more year of hoeing and fertilizing, one more year of gentle care, one more chance. Patience extended beyond reason. And that’s the key to this parable: that Jesus, Our Lord, is the patient vinedresser. He’s the worker who trusts our souls will blossom over time. He’s the patient God who trusts in us even when we lose confidence in ourselves.
Yes, God is patient. What appears to the world as dried up and useless, He views differently. To Him we’re always on the brink of producing fruit or brilliant blossoms. But you and I…well, if we’re honest, we’re probably more like the hardnosed vineyard owner. It doesn’t take much for us to write off others when they don’t seem to measure up to our self-defined Christian expectations.
The simple truth is that we still carry a childhood notion of God wielding a chain saw. But that’s not the Father Jesus describes; and so we’re called to thank God for His patience, to thank God for a life measured by all those Lents where we ended up no better than when we started.
God doesn’t dwell on the past, brothers and sisters. He looks only at this Lent, calling us to a deeper relationship with Him. Jesus speaks to us as the vineyard dresser speaks to the vineyard owner. God is patient with us because He has a plan for each of us and the hope that we will accept His gift of grace so we can fulfill that plan. The question is: can we be patient with ourselves?
When we feel dry and lifeless, when our lives seems to be spinning out of control, when our relationships are marked by bitterness and strife, when the death of a loved one drives home the fragility of life, when our children seem to be slipping away from us and from God…When all these things generate unanswered questions in our lives, that’s when we need to trust in our God, our God who is patient and forgiving.
Equally important, because St. Paul tells us to “Be imitators of God” [Eph 5:1], we need to be patient with each other. We need to treat each other with the same tenderness we see in Jesus…even when the wait takes every shred of patience, even when we’re ready to rev up the chainsaw. Because God is patient with us, because He trusts us to do as He commanded, we too must be patient and trusting with ourselves and with others.
And so, I suppose Lent challenges each of us to ask ourselves, “What’s my image of God?” Is He a cosmic umpire, or is He a patient loving Father? Our answer makes a huge difference.