There are a lot of people whose main goal in life seems to be trying to have as many unique experiences as possible. They are the people who are always going on exotic vacations or trying new experiences. They are always looking for something new and exciting. Some people have the same approach to the spiritual life. They are always looking for great religious experiences, going on this retreat and that pilgrimage. There isn’t anything inherently wrong with religious experiences. But they aren’t the goal of the spiritual life. And just having religious experiences doesn’t make us good disciples.
St. Paul, in the second reading, speaks of the Israelites. He says that they “were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all of them were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink.” He is speaking here of the events of the Exodus. Look at all the things that the people experienced. They saw the glory of God on the mountain, they passed through the Red Sea, they ate the manna that God provided and drank the water from the rock. These were amazing experiences. But St. Paul says, “Yet God was not pleased with most of them.” Why not? Why were these people, who experienced so much from God, not pleasing to Him? Think back to the stories of the Exodus. Despite everything they experienced, the people continued to rebel against God. In spite of all of their experiences, as powerful as those were, the people never grew, they never changed. God continually blessed them, but they repeatedly doubted Him and sinned against Him.
The purpose of the spiritual life is not to have these big religious experiences but to bear fruit, as Our Lord says in the Gospel. He uses the parable of a man who plants a tree, but the tree never bears fruit. It takes everything in, the sunlight, the water, the soil, but it never produces anything. The Israelites in the Exodus that St. Paul was speaking of were similar; they experienced all those amazing things, but they never bore fruit. We can fall into the same situation. There is a danger that our faith simply becomes a spectator sport. We experience a lot, but it never achieves anything, and we never bear fruit. We pray, we go to Mass, we receive Our Lord Himself in the Eucharist, but all the while, we never bear fruit. We’re like fans at a sporting event – we know a lot about the team, their stats and figures and the rules of the game, but we don’t actually play the game. Likewise, we can know a lot about Jesus, His teachings and such, but it doesn’t translate into action. Jesus isn’t looking for spiritual fans; He wants teammates. Our faith is not something that we experience but something we live.
Our Lord is calling us to bear fruit, and, as He says in the Gospel, the fruit that He is looking for is repentance. Sometimes, we can think “to repent” means “to be sorry for our sins.” But it means something much more. The Greek word for repentance in the Gospel is μετανοέω. It literally means a change of thought or a change of mind.
Repentance means more than just feeling bad for our sins, it means actually changing. That should make sense. If there is something that you do that offends or hurts your spouse, you don’t just feel bad about it, but you also work to avoid it in the future. Very often though, we may feel bad about our sins, but we don’t really work at avoiding it in the future. We can fall into the trap of just continuing to sin, all the while saying that we are sorry for it and convincing ourselves that just feeling bad is good enough. But true repentance means not just feeling sorry for our sins but actually working at avoiding it in the future. Likewise, it means not just wanting to be better but actually working at it.
This Lent, it is good to ask ourselves, what changes is the Lord calling me to make in my life? Are there sins that I repeatedly fall into without ever working on overcoming them? Are there virtues that I am lacking in that I don’t work on cultivating? And how can I work on these things during this holy season?
Our Lord calls us to be more than spectators; we are called to bear fruit, the fruit of repentance. We are called to change our lives. Moses is a great model for this. Upon having his encounter with God in the burning bush, his entire life changed. On the contrary, the Israelites during the Exodus also encountered God, and yet they didn’t repent and bear fruit. Which one will we be? We encounter God every Sunday here in the Eucharist. Will this encounter with God change us? Will we bear the fruit of repentance that God wants from us? Or will we stay unchanged?