As we celebrate the Third Sunday of Lent, we begin to see the sequence of events in the gospel readings. On the first Sunday of Lent the temptations in the desert warned us about the confrontations we would have during Lent. Last week the transfiguration showed us the meaning and thrust of this confrontation. Today we have heard an urgent call to penance. "If you do not repent you will all perish." Penance doesn’t seem to fit into contemporary society. Some think it belongs to an outdated Christianity. Yet Jesus reminds us of its urgency and importance. It is not just some church law invented by an ecclesiastical system. Rather, it is a specific command from the Lord himself.
The word "penance" stirs up all sorts of images and ideas in our minds. To an older generation there are images of sacrifices made during Lent, giving up favorites like candy or movies etc. The obligation of fasting was a penance superimposed on us, and for some it was a discipline undertaken to get beyond the self and make us a better person.
Repentance is a major theme running throughout the gospel of St. Luke. He is convinced that anyone who is willing to repent can be assured of God’s grace of forgiveness. On the other hand, Luke does not think that forgiveness is automatic. Sinners must take ownership of their lives and act responsibly, or else pay the consequences, forfeiting God’s forgiving grace.
The Greek term for penance is metanoia which means "repentance" or "a turning away from sin and a turning back to God. Jesus issues his order for this kind of penance in a particular context. He describes two events that are found only in Luke’s gospel. The first has to do with Galileans whose blood Pilate mingles with their sacrifices. Jesus points out they were not singled out because they were sinners’ they were random victims and the warning is that this can happen to anyone at any time. Now is the time for repentance. The same dynamic is present with the description of the tower at Siloam which fell on 18 people and killed them. Finally, the parable of the fig tree which will be cut down if it does not produce fruit. This characterizes Jesus’ approach to sinners, and while he clearly manifests compassion when dealing with sinners, he also demands accountability and does not deal in cheap grace. Forgiveness requires repentance.
Fr John R. Mulvehill