Lent continues for the rest of this term, right up until Easter. Lent is a time when we are reminded to live simply and to practise humility and gratitude.
The reality is that very few people do this all the time. It is difficult to live humbly and with gratitude every minute of the day. We all make mistakes. That is simply the reality of life.
One of the things I enjoy reading about Jesus, both his teaching and what he did, is that he was remarkably tolerant and forgiving. It seems like an obvious thing to say, but it’s really important to acknowledge: Jesus was incredibly forgiving of people who knew that they had stuffed up, who were genuinely sorry, and who came seeking forgiveness.
There is often misunderstanding about the journey of saying sorry and asking for forgiveness. Anyone can be forgiven, even Vladimir Putin for what he is doing to the people of Ukraine at the moment. Forgiveness is always granted by God, but forgiveness is linked with repentance, turning away from what is wrong and saying sorry, and then resolving to live a better life in response to the forgiveness.
So, forgiveness, repentance, and a resolution to do better in the future, are all linked, inextricably.
Jesus told a simple parable about this (Luke 13: 6–9). A man plants a fig tree (a common enough fruit tree in the Middle East) but for three years it produces nothing, using up the precious resource of water in the process. It’s actually worse than useless, because it is taking much more than it is giving back. The owner, who is obviously reasonably well-off because he can afford a gardener, says, “Cut it down! Why should it be wasting the soil?”
Yet, the gardener, like all good gardeners, knows the value of patience. He knows the value of time. There is a metaphor for God in here somewhere. He says to the owner, “Let it alone for one more year, until I dig around it and put manure on it.”
It reminds me of the lemon tree in my backyard. Last summer, as in 12 months ago, it did not produce any lemons, for the 2nd year in a row. It looked sick. Mrs McCall, who is the more ruthless gardener of the two of us, said, “That’s it. It needs to go! I’m chopping it back to the stump. Better still, get your chainsaw!” I said, “Let’s give it one more year.” Two things happened. We had another tree removed that was stealing all its sunlight and probably all its water as well, and Mrs McCall gave it a good trim. The result is that it is now producing in abundance.
So, what is the repentance that Jesus is looking for in telling this parable? Clearly, he is talking to the disciples, but also to the much larger crowd of people who were listening to his teaching as well, hanging off his every word, such was his charisma at the height of his story telling. He is saying to all of them, “There is still time to turn your lives around.”
There is still time.
One of my yard duties this term is up in the Miller Library at lunchtime. Apart from having to quieten down the odd over-enthusiastic chess player, it’s a pretty easy yard duty. So, with a bit of time on my hands last week I browsed the religious and wellbeing section of the books, noted that my book was still there (and yes, it has occasionally been borrowed!) and then found a book by the noted author Hugh Mackay, entitled ‘The Good Life’. Hugh Mackay is a social commentator; he studies and comments on what he observes in society. He has written, for example, on the characteristics of the different generations, Baby Boomers, Gen X, and so on.
In his study at university level, he has come to some conclusions about what makes for a good life. The most important aspect of living a good life? Living life according to the Golden Rule, taught by Jesus and others, namely, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Jesus was even more specific at one point, “Love your neighbour as you love yourself.”
Hugh Mackay suggests that we can train ourselves to do this. Our thoughts can help us live by the Golden Rule. He is actually using an ancient Christian teaching, which he quotes: one of the very few places in the book that he quotes from the Bible. I am fairly certain that he is an Anglican, but he understates that in the book, because he wants to appeal to a wider audience.
The ancient teaching is this: “Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things” (Philippians 4: 8).
Hugh Mackay says that training yourself in good thoughts alone is not enough – it needs to lead to something else: action. We usually call this “Service to others!” Training yourself in good thoughts, leading to action (service to others), will result in a good life, a meaningful life.
It is never too late. There is still time.
The Reverend Dr Theo McCall