Third Sunday of Lent (March 24, 2019)

I have great respect and admiration for those “working the program” in Alcoholics Anonymous. One of the admirable aspects of AA is the wonderful aphorisms, helpful “sayings,” that they have.

One is: “It’s not my drinking that gets me stinking, it’s my stinking thinking that gets me drinking.” I’ll repeat . . . Stinking thinking, unproductive, self-hurtful thinking, can put an alcoholic on the slippery slope towards falling back into taking a drink. There is a close parallel in the spiritual life. Jesus gives two examples at the beginning of today’s Gospel where he reads the stinking thinking in his listener’s minds.

In the first instance, he perceives that the hearers thought that Pilate acted for god who did not accept the Galileans’ sacrificial offerings and therefore sent him, Pilate, to kill them. In the second example, the falling of a tower and killing 18 was an action willfully done by God. In current, American parlance, Jesus’ answer to both situations was “no way! “

The seekers in today’s Gospel are like ourselves when we ask a theoretical question about someone else, but we are really asking for a very practical answer for ourselves.

The point to this Gospel incident is that each of us has the clear mission to do God’s will. God does have expectations of us. When you and I fall short, God is in some divine way disappointed in us.

John Shea has good insights that I would like to share with you. He identifies parallel instances in the Gospels where Jesus makes the same point as the story of the fig tree: the story about the prodigal son who squanders his inheritance, the light that is put under the basket instead of on top of the lamp stand, the salt that must be thrown out because it has lost its power. We can add Jesus’ words to the Jewish leaders: “The kingdom of God will be taken away from you and given to a nation that will yield a rich harvest.” [Mt. 21]

The story of the fig tree is that it, too, is a story of someone who is not performing, not doing the will of the master. The will of God. Without doubt, is that we change and produce fruit that we help to bring about the kingdom of God on earth. The lord’s prayer, the prayer that Jesus himself taught, prays that the kingdom of our Father in heaven come, that his will be done on earth as it is in heaven. Christians may disagree on many things, but never that doing the will of God is paramount in Jesus’ teaching.

Christian, stinking thinking can take different forms in addition to the stories that begin this section of Luke where bad things happen to presumably good people. It can take the form of some catholic devotion that adherents think that saying certain prayers fulfills all of Christianity. It can take the form of a curable, mental disorder, like scrupulosity, where one is consumed with fear of committing mortal sin. It can take the form of there being a divine plan for everyone, so whatever bad thing happens must be in God’s divine plan. Where did that destructive idea come from? It has been around for a long time.

The mind can hold only so much. If it is filled, is consumed with thoughts such as “any of the above,” the mind cannot grow. John Henry Neumann, the Anglican priest, converted to Catholicism said that what is true in nature is true of our minds: “Growth is the only evidence of life.”

Life is not looking outside ourselves at “already done deals” to work backwards into what can be seen as God’s will. It is in listening to the will of God in our time of prayer that we come to understand what God calls us to. It is in prayer that we can discern God’s will, what needs to be changed, and then begin to weed and cultivate the soil of the unproducing aspect of our situation without playing time-wasting, speculative, mind games.

That is metanoia. That is the work of Lent.