Saturday, 29 th Week in Ordinary Time
Romans 8: 1-11; Luke 13: 1-9
In the gospel Jesus cites current events and warns us against a certain type of complacency. Today, current events also show us the folly of such complacency – aren’t we are still under the sword of Pilate? We might live in a great country, but as September 11 th taught us, evil men can invade our seemingly secure space to do evil. And, can’t that tower fall on us at any time? Katrina, Rita and now Wilma should have convinced us of that. All of us are in equal danger – as long as we keep sinning. As Jesus says in today’s gospel reading: if we do not repent, we too shall perish like them.
Now, one great preacher used to say that after hearing the Word of God we have to ask ourselves: does it sound like Good News – or bad news to us. Whether we receive the Word as good or as bad news depends on the state of our heart, whether or not it is turned to the Lord.
At the heart of the gospel is the call to conversion. Conversion, which is symbolized by our submitting to Baptism, is our entry into the Life of God, the Life of the Spirit. The Sacrament of Baptism is the effective sign of our conversion, our turning to the Lord. St. Paul says in the first reading: “Now there is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus has freed you from the law of sin and death.” Hopefully, this is beginning to sound like “good news”. In this first reading, we are reminded of the tremendous gift that God has given us – though we were sinners, his Son died for us. We are saved by the free gift of grace.
Grace is free, but it does not come cheap. We cannot save ourselves; but, God will not save us against ourselves. The parable of the fruitless fig tree so well illustrates this in today’s gospel reading. The tree has tried the patience of its owner, yet one last time he decides to fertilize it and work the soil around it. We could say that grace is offered to the tree – a grace that it certainly did not deserve. Why waste the effort when perhaps nearby there are fruitful trees? Nevertheless, the grace will not automatically produce fruit. The tree has to absorb the fertilizer; it has to respond to the care, if it is to produce fruit. We, like that fig tree, receive God’s grace without having earned it, we receive it freely; but we have to cooperate with grace if we are to produce the fruit of righteousness God expects from us.
Again, listen to St. Paul: “For those who live according to the flesh are concerned with the things of the flesh, but those who live according to the spirit with the things of the spirit.”
I would like to offer you a quote from St. John Vianney, the famous Cure d’Ars, of 19 th century France. As a priest in a poor country parish, he attracted thousands who came to have him hear their confessions. He said in one of his sermons: “Jesus tells us that, without Holy Baptism, no one will enter the Kingdom of Heaven; and elsewhere, that if we do not repent we will all perish. This is all easily understood. Ever since man sinned, all his senses rebel against reason; therefore, if we want the flesh to be controlled by the spirit and by reason, it must be mortified; if we do not want the body to be at war with the soul, it and all our senses need to be chastened; if we desire to go to God, the soul with all its faculties needs to be mortified.”
Grace is free – but not cheap. A Protestant pastor, Dietrich Bonheoffer, who lived in Nazi Germany – and was executed by Hitler just a few weeks before the end of the war wrote a book called The Cost of Discipleship. He was highly critical of the state of the church in Germany at the time of the Nazi takeover. He felt that too many Christians came to believe in a false idea of what Christian living was about. The gospel was no longer seen as demanding because too many came to believe in what he called “cheap grace”
Cheap grace is the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance, baptism without discipline, communion without confession, absolution without personal confession. Cheap grace is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross, grace without Jesus Christ, living and incarnate.
Is it just a mere coincidence that at the same time when the crucifix began to disappear from so many of our churches, frequent confession also was abandoned by so many of our Catholic people? Grace is not cheap – it costs dearly, for the price of grace was the death of our Lord Jesus Christ on the cross. Grace is given freely – but only so that we can ourselves take up our cross as follow Christ along the way of discipleship.
Too often, we hear spoken or expressed in so many words certain attitudes that hide this counterfeit version of grace, this cheap grace I am speaking of. The first attitude is express in the phrase: God accepts me and blesses me just as I am. Certainly, God loves us just as he fines us – he does not love us because we a good – Jesus died for us while we were still his enemies. Yet, because God loves us, we can become good. God desires our conversion – he wants us to turn to him and not stay “just as we are”.
Another attitude disguising a “cheap grace” approach to the Spiritual life is expressed in saying: “I am saved–period!” It doesn’t matter what I do – if I do good or evil – because we’re all going to heaven anyway. Or we say I can’t do any better; God understands. As is God doesn’t care if we overcome our resentments, or our sinful habits. Cheap grace, indeed. Similar to this attitude, one that we sometimes hear from the young – but also too often from the not so young: This is a stage I need to go through until I’ve really dealt with my issues. God is patient. I’ve done everything I could; now it’s all up to God. Oh yeah, God is patient – will your wife be as patient as you go through this stage – with another woman? All this is counterfeit grace – a grace that requires no effort, no struggle on our part. Yet, real grace is costly grace.
Costly grace is the “treasure hidden in the field; for the sake of it, a man will gladly go and sell all that he has. It is the pearl of great price to by which the merchant will sell all of his goods. It is the kingly rule of Christ, for whose sake a man will pluck out the eye which causes him to stumble, it is the call of Jesus Christ at which the disciple leaves his net and follow him. It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives man the true life.”
As Christians, we are engaged everyday in a spiritual warfare – to resist temptation and do what is right, what is pleasing to God. Cheap grace tells us we can give up the battle that we don’t have to fight, to struggle. As St. John Vianney said, the Christian life requires that we mortify ourselves, that we must chasten our senses. Why should we not give up the battle? Because it is only in the battle that we will experience God’s grace. Sometimes we try, and we find that truly “we can do all things through him who strengthens us”. Sometimes we try and fail, and lying wounded at the side of the road, his grace comes to us as the Good Samaritan. He binds up our wounds, lifts us up and carries us to a safe place, a place of healing.
Cheap grace is presumptuous; costly grace is humble. Cheap grace asserts the self; costly grace flows out of taking up our cross daily.
As Bonheoffer writes of grace: Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of His Son: ‘you were bought with a price,’ and what has cost God so much cannot be cheap for us. Above all, it is grace because God did not reckon His Son too dear a price to pay for our life, but delivered Him up for us.
At the beginning of the Year of the Eucharist, the Holy Father John Paul II wrote a beautiful exhortation, Mane nobiscum, Domine (Stay with us, Lord). In the Eucharist, the Lord does stay with us to allow us to grow in grace. Under the appearances of bread and wine, we encounter our Living Lord so that his grace may make us his disciples, so that his grace will help us take up our cross and follow him along the way of discipleship.
The grace that Jesus offers us is not just His ultimate victory in our lives — the promise that at the end of the road we will experience the healing that we long for. It is also, the grace for today that in our daily struggles, win or lose, we know that He is with us, and this realization more than compensates for whatever price we must pay to try and walk with Him.