4th Sunday of Lent Year B
Our salvation is not something we can earn. Let us repent for our sins and humbly accept salvation as the grace of God.
From a young age, many of us were taught: “Be a good boy, be a good girl, otherwise you will be punished.” This thinking permeates all aspects of our childhood – at home, in school and in our religious classes. Hence, it comes as no surprise that many of us carry this thinking into the practice of our faith – the result is that many of us Christians try to earn our salvation by being good. We try to earn our entry ticket into heaven by coming to church every Sunday; taking part in prayer devotions; helping in church ministries; giving money to charity; etc. In effect, we reduce our faith to a series of cause-and-effect equations. The First Reading this week seems to support this cause-and-effect notion when it recalls the fate of Jews in the Babylonian exile. “All the leading priests and the people also were exceedingly unfaithful, following all the abominations of the nations; and they polluted the house of the Lord that he had consecrated in Jerusalem … until the wrath of the Lord against his people became so great that there was no remedy.” (verse 14, 16) Because of their sins, God lifted his protection over the Jewish race and allowed the Babylonians to conquer the kingdom of Judah. As a result of this event, the Jewish people were exiled to Babylon. While it true that our sins can lead to punishments, our faith cannot mature if it remains at this cause-and-effect level.
While the cause-and-effect model may be helpful in building up the budding faith of a young child, it can be detrimental to a healthy maturing of faith as we become adults. Firstly, it portrays a vengeful God who always stands ready to punish me for my wrongdoings. Growing up as a non-believing young person, the idea of a vengeful God was a major obstacle to me embracing the Christian faith. A child who is always afraid of punishment by a stern parent cannot develop a loving relationship with the parent. Consequently, many of us adult Christians have never experienced intimacy with our loving God. Secondly, the cause-and-effect motivates me to perform good works in so far as the good works are my ticket to earning my salvation. Like students trying to please a demanding teacher, we compete with each other in our good works, constantly trying to outshine each other. While it may not be the only reason, this mentality has in part explained much of the unhealthy competition and politics in our faith communities. Thirdly, the cause-and-effect notion distorts our understanding of God’s mercy. With a false sense of self-righteousness, I think that God’s mercy is only for those who are as good a Christian as me. I think so highly of myself because I think I have earned my salvation by my own merits. Since I can earn my salvation, what use do I still have of God’s mercy then? Why do I have to repent then? After all, I could easily do some good works to counter the effect my sins – if I have any sin at all in the first place! Many of us would not admit it, but in my pride, I have elevated myself to become my own God. “Claiming to be wise, they became fools; and they exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling a mortal human being or birds or four-footed animals or reptiles.” (Rom 1:22-23) And that new god that I worship, that image of a mortal human being, is none other than I myself.
The Psalm Reading this week dispels the notion of cause-and-effect outlook on faith. It dispels the notion that we need not repent. In a famous Psalm that was made into a popular pop song in the 1970s, it recalls the exiled Jews lamenting to God of their suffering: “By the rivers of Babylon – there we sat down and there we wept when we remembered Zion.” (Ps 137:1) Speaking on behalf of the people, the prophet Isaiah hence pleaded to God for His mercy: “Why, O Lord, do you make us stray from your ways and harden our heart, so that we do not fear you? Turn back for the sake of your servants, for the sake of the tribes that are your heritage.” (Isa 63:17)
My brothers and sisters, do not allow ourselves to get too proud. Each of us are held captive by our sins. In truth, by our anger, our lust, our pride, our greed, our gluttony, our envy and our sloth, we do not deserve salvation. In spite of his great work and supreme intellect, even the great St Paul admitted he cannot earn his own salvation. As he said to the Romans, “there is no distinction, since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:22-23). St Paul was therefore grateful when God sends him a reminder: “to keep me from being too elated, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated.” (2 Cor 12:7) All of us are in need of God’s mercy. No amount of good works on my part can earn me salvation. St Paul said in the Second Reading this week, “for by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God – not the result of works, so that no one may boast.” (verse 8-9) Hence, “we know that a person is justified not by the works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ. And we have come to believe in Christ Jesus, so that we might be justified by faith in Christ, and not by doing the works of the law, because no one will be justified by the works of the law.” (Gal 2:16).
In the Gospel this week, Jesus said, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (verse 16-17) My dear friends, we cannot save ourselves, we cannot earn our salvation. This is the reason Jesus died for us. By His love, Jesus took on our sins, died for us, and won our salvation through His suffering and death. That is why we call this act of Jesus His Passion. Passion is an act of love, it is also an act of suffering. Yes, my brothers and sisters, as any loving parent who has ever made a sacrifice for his/her child will tell you, love and suffering are always intertwined – we love through our suffering, we suffer as we love. And it is through intertwining our love and suffering with those of Jesus that we truly become His disciples. This is when our good works take on salvific meaning. Not because they earn us our salvation, but they become visible manifestations of our salvific joy. “Faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (Jms 2:17). Let us join Jesus in His salvific mission. Amen.