There is a starkness to Lent, from the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness to his brutal death on the cross. Raw physical hardship, deprivation and pain run through the entire season. This Sunday’s Gospel reading contains two harsh passages, the first, Jesus’s blunt message of ‘repent or perish’, and the second, his parable of the barren fig tree.
When, after three years, a vineyard owner finds no fruit on his fig tree, he instructs the gardener to cut it down. The gardener pleads for the life of the tree, saying he will dig around it and spread manure on it, and if it doesn’t produce fruit by the following year then he will cut it down. Tantalisingly, we are not told what happens after the year is up. Jesus leaves the fate of the fig tree hanging in his hearers’ imaginations.
Both the passage preceding today’s reading and the one immediately following feature further stories of a strangely stern Jesus, accusing the crowds who had come to listen to him, as well as the religious authorities who were trying to find fault with him, of being hypocrites. Jesus’s words offer no comfort, no solace, only a piercing indictment of sham, hypocrisy and lack of true compassion.
The Jesus, who, when the time came, would be willing to make the awful journey to Golgotha, is also the Jesus who saw the full extent and consequence of human fear, self-righteousness and self-deception. His sternness arose, not from a condescending judgement of human waywardness, but from the depths of his compassion and it spoke into the chasm between the reality of his own intimate and trusting relationship with God and the needless barrenness of so many people’s lives around him, living without a vision of the true God and of the community of love into which they were continually being invited, if they could but see.
This chasm, this sharp and agonising dissonance between Jesus’s internal reality with his Father and the world in which he lived is most beautifully expressed in a parable Luke relates a few chapters further on. It is the story that, perhaps more than any other, expresses the mis-match between human rebelliousness and false projections onto God and the true divine nature. The parable of the prodigal son tells the story of human wilfulness and folly, and eventual repentance, but more than anything, it reveals the depth and breadth of divine longing, compassion and love.
Jesus’s earlier harsh sentence on the fig tree and his scathing accusations of hypocrisy can be seen as urgent appeals to his listeners to come to their senses, to listen to what he has been telling them and to turn from their delusions about themselves and God, and turn to the offer of loving unity and intimacy that Jesus expresses in his prayer to his Father recorded in John chapter 17, on the night he allowed himself to be arrested.
What is the main work of Lent? It will most certainly be different for each and every person who attempts anything other than the pattern and habits of the rest of the year, but is there any one thing that commends itself as a prime task or focus?
Very simply, my answer would be that there is one thing above all others that is the proper work of Lent. It is to see Jesus with new eyes and to hear his message with new ears, and seeing and hearing, to open ourselves anew to Christ’s transforming power and vision, so that the living out of our faith moves from being about Jesus to being more profoundly and intimately of and with Jesus.
If it is true that we already inhabit eternity at the same time as we live out our days on our spinning planet, then it must be the case that we can become more aware of and acquainted with the eternal Now. It is clearly a good thing to understand and accept the challenges and constraints of our earthly existence, but for Followers of the Way, that can never be enough. We are compelled by Jesus’s life and actions, and by his paradoxical teachings and his perplexing parables, to look deeper, further, to lift the corner of the deceptive curtain that separates our rational and physical existence from our sensed and half-remembered spiritual reality.
Our willingness to do this, to venture into the known-unknown will depend on our view of God. Do we shrink back in fear at Jesus’s harsh exposing of our barrenness and hypocrisy, or do we respond by acknowledging our folly, picking ourselves up out of the swill, and turning back to home?