The 4th Sunday of Lent
(2Chr 36:14-16, 19-23, Eph 2:4-10, Jn 3:14-21)
Every choice we make, every decision, has consequences. If we make good choices, good things are going to follow from it. If bad, bad things will follow. You cannot pick figs from thornbushes or grapes from brambles (Lk 6:44). Actions have consequences; there’s no getting around it. And we shouldn’t be surprised or complain when we end up reaping the results of what we have sown. Evil can be enticing in the short term, but sooner or later we’ll have to pay the tab.
The best way for us to learn not to make bad choices is to suffer the consequences. Sometimes parents in their love for their child try to step in and ward off the bad results. If the child’s action is an honest mistake or an infrequent occurrence, then I can sympathize with the parents’ coming to the rescue. But if there’s a pattern, that kid’s not going to learn. You’re actually teaching him that actions DO NOT have consequences. He’ll start believing that he can do whatever he wants and someone will step in and save him from the fallout. Tough love, in this circumstance, would not sever the results from the action, but would allow him to reap what he sows.
A family comes to mind where the parents are indulgent with their youngest son. He has been spoiled and has been impaired in learning some of these important life-lessons we have been talking about. He has been stopped multiple times for drunk driving and his parents always jump in to pay his fines for him and do whatever they can to mitigate the penalties. But the most loving thing they can do is to step back and let him feel the pinch of his stupid decisions. Oh, you had to sell your beloved truck in order to pay the fine? Oh, you don’t have a driver’s license now and can’t go wherever you want whenever you want? Sorry, dude. That’s the only way you’re going to learn. Mommy and Daddy won’t be coming to the rescue this time.
Another example comes to mind of a girl who had a drug problem. The judge in that place knew her family and was always trying to be lenient and find a way to let her off the hook. Finally, he sent her to prison. And years later she told me it was the best thing that ever happened to her. That’s just what she needed to wake up and realize what she was doing with her life.
Well, God is like a big parent. It hurts him to have to stand by and watch us suffer the unpleasant consequences of our poor decisions. God would love to always jump in and snatch away the harmful effects of our sins, to intercept them and spare us. But that wouldn’t be reality. And it would probably result in us just growing further and further away from him.
In our first reading from the Old Testament we heard of the Israelites “adding infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting the Lord’s temple.” We are told that “early and often” God sent messengers and tried to call them back, “for he had compassion on his people.” But they ignored his loving advances and ended up being conquered by the Chaldeans and were deported to Babylon. But even there he did not forget his compassion for them and eventually brought them back and helped them rebuild their temple under Cyrus.
Then, in the fullness of time, God sent his beloved Son into the world to pay the ransom for our misdeeds. He saw there was no way we could ever work off the enormous debt, so he himself suffered the results of our bad choices on the cross. Like the serpent lifted up by Moses in the desert, so Christ was lifted up on a staff in order that “everyone who believes in him may have eternal life,” as Jesus explained to Nicodemus in today’s gospel.
And in our second reading we heard the Letter to the Ephesians marvelling over how God, “even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life in Christ . . . that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.”
But it’s not automatic. There’s a catch. We have to ACCEPT this tremendous offer. He’s not going to force it on us, even though he would LOVE to with all his might. Such is the exquisite respect he has for our free will. God is an indulgent parent, but he is not SO indulgent that he divorces all results from our choices. This is one big choice we have to make on our own: to believe in him, to let him love us, to allow him into our lives and pay attention to him. As Jesus further explained to Nicodemus in our gospel passage, God “gave his only Son so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life.”
But if Jesus picked up the tab for our sins does that mean actions don’t have consequences? Well, for starters, there is the Catholic de fide doctrine of purgatory. Even after our sins are forgiven in confession, there is still temporal punishment attached to them that must be worked off either in this life or the next. Second, yes there are consequences, and those consequences landed on Jesus who was innocent. I remember hearing of a girl who watched the bloody scourging of Christ in Mel Gibson’s “The Passion” and said with tears that she never wanted to sin anymore.
But what about believing? In our gospel selection it says, “Whoever does not believe has already been condemned.” That seems pretty harsh. A lot of people die every day who do not explicitly believe in Christ. What about those who would like to believe but they just can’t. I remember an old lady from my childhood like that. But in her life she followed her conscience and did good and avoided evil. She had learned through experience that bad choices bring bad results and good ones, good. God is the reader of hearts, and he’s going to find a way to get those people into heaven. Maybe at the time of our death time stands still and we see Our Lord and have the definitive opportunity to choose or reject him.
In my opinion, every little choice we make on a daily basis is shaping us as to how we are going to respond to that final choice.