By Sam Keyes
Our Gospel reading from Luke talks about bearing fruit, and it’s important that we understand what this means. It’s a metaphor, of course, because you and I are not fruit trees. However much you try, you’re not going to get apples to pop out of the top of your head. The fruit that human beings bear is good works — things we do in the world that show God’s love and mercy and power — things we do if we “live bravely” and “lead for good.”
The trouble is that we often have a hard time doing these good works. The people in the Gospel get in trouble because they aren’t living in the way that they should be. The metaphor takes a pretty hard turn here. If they don’t get their act together and start bearing fruit, they will be cut down. They will be judged.
And he makes it pretty clear that the way they will start bearing fruit is repentance. Repentance is that act of turning around, changing course, admitting that you’re headed in the wrong direction. You realize that what you said to your friend was really mean and you say, hey, I’m so sorry I said that to you. Will you please forgive me? Repentance is crucial for our relationships with one another and with God. You can’t do good until you come to grips with the ways that you’re doing evil.
In a lot of ways, that is what this season of Lent is all about. We’re supposed to spend a lot of time thinking about our sins, a lot of time in confession and penance, time repenting and changing the direction of our life so that our life can bear more fruit.
But how do we do that? When we think about Lent — and this whole idea of repentance — it is easy to focus on the negative. What am I doing wrong? What should I stop? But a lot of times, I think, that kind of negative focus doesn’t really help us get to the kind of good work Jesus seems to want for us. It’s just kind of sad and dark.
To find the right kind of repentance, we need a positive vision of where we’re headed. And this is where, a little strangely, we get that reading from Exodus. It’s the story of the burning bush, where Moses encounters God in the wilderness of Sinai. It’s the place where God reveals his name. But what I want to point out about the story is something else. When Moses approaches the fire, God tells him, hold on, take off your shoes, for the place where you walk is holy ground. And Moses hid his face because he was too scared to see God.
What does that even mean? It’s a strange thing for us. God is holy, and for Moses that holiness is terrifying and awesome. We don’t really think of holiness like that. We think of holiness as being the sweet old grandmother who prays the rosary a lot and so must be super holy. Or we think of it as a nice person who never cusses and always holds the door open for people and has a nice little halo around their head because they’re always thinking happy thoughts. But in the Bible, holiness means something different. It means, actually, different. If something is holy it is separate, distinct, different from the ordinary. So, for example, this chapel is holy not because it is magic or because when you come through the doors God likes you better. It is holy because it has been separated from other places for a specific purpose — for the worship of God. Which is why if you asked us to play a big game of capture the flag where the base is up there under the altar, the answer would be no, not because games are somehow evil, but because that is not what this place is for. It is holy.
And so when we talk about God’s holiness, we need to extend that thought further. God is different, separate, other. God is not like us. He is not just the biggest thing around. He is not “the man upstairs.” He’s not a man, and he’s not upstairs. He’s nowhere. And everywhere. And completely and absolutely unique. And that kind of holiness is dangerous. The Bible often treats it like a white-hot energy. Think of it like the sun. The sun is good. The sun gives us life. But you can’t look at it directly. If you get too close, you burn up.
Still, for Moses, the encounter with that dangerous holiness is what inspires him to go off and lead the Israelites out of slavery in Egypt. It is what inspires him to lead the people of God through the wilderness to the promised land. He knows that this God is so holy, so powerful, so awesome, that anything is possible.
Maybe it is even possible that we can be holy that we can somehow participate in the power and the beauty and the goodness and the love of this God who is so strong, so good, so blindingly perfect and incomprehensible, that we dare not even approach him.
But we can, and we must, because that is what he calls us to do. This God calls us to approach him, this Lent, to look on him, in all his glory and terror, so that this vision can help us understand exactly how we personally need to repent and change so that we can better bear fruit and live in a way that is worthy of that glory and beauty.
So this is really the main point that I want to make: you can’t know how you need to change, you can’t repent, until you look at the holiness of God. It’s so easy to think of Lent as a time of self-improvement. And so we give up chocolate or gluten or Netflix or whatever because it might help us look more like that image that we think we ought to be. That’s not the holiness of God. It’s the holiness of Hollywood, or contemporary mental health, or my own imagination. God is something else.
Which means that there is really no substitute for making Lent about God. Yes, we should try to do good. Yes, we should repent. Yes, we should repent so that we can do good and bear fruit. But the only way that we can ever get there is if we pay attention to where we are going, if we pay attention to this God who shows us exactly what the good life looks life in his son Jesus Christ. Until we look to him, and to his holiness, and try to see it, and understand it, all of our attempts to do good and to live bravely will amount to nothing.
We have four more weeks before Easter. Make the most of it. Look to Jesus. Look to his life and story. Look to the witness of the prophets. Because Jesus is clear: we will be judged, no matter how much power or popularity we have in this life. Trees without fruit will be cut down.
The Rev. Dr. Sam Keyes is professor of theology at John Paul the Great Catholic University, Escondido, California.