This Sunday’s Gospel reading is Luke 13.1-9. It is not an easy reading – a warning to ‘repent or perish’ followed by the parable of the fig-tree, which concludes with the words: If it bears fruit next year, well and good; but if not, you can cut it down.
Judgment is not a theme that Christians can evade. The Gospel is about grace – about a God whose love for us does not depend on what we do or how we behave – but it challenges us to respond to that free offer, not least because life without that grace is barren and destructive. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it:
Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of the church. Our struggle today is for costly grace. … Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which has to be asked for, the door at which one has to knock. It is costly, because it calls to discipleship; it is grace, because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ. It is costly, because it costs people their lives; it is grace, because it thereby makes them live.
The Old Testament reading set for Sunday (Isaiah 55.1-9) reinforces the message. It speaks of the destructiveness of a life closed in on the self – and the invitation to find fulness of life by turning instead to God and to his ways of justice and of peace.
It is not a kindness – to our neighbours or ourselves – to evade the reality of the choice which God places before each human being. We respond to God, not merely with the words we speak, but with the way we live, and the things we set our hearts on. As one writer has put it:
my God is that which rivets my attention, centres my activity, preoccupies my mind, and motivates my action
The disciplines of Lent are life-giving, not life-denying, precisely because they are about the costly process of weaning us offmaking idols of the good things in creation. In focusing us on the one true God, and setting our hearts on his Kingdom, we find truly abundant life, and we learn to enjoy – and share – his gifts aright.
This is not only true in our individual lives. One reason the Contextual Theology Centre has launched the Seeing Change course this Lent is precisely because we need to learn this lesson corporately as well as individually – and wean ourselves off the economic idols that are costing us all so dear.