A Second Chance? or Last Chance …?


– By Fr Ugo Ikwuka
Archway, London  


“Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind, therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee” – John Donne, English poet and Anglican Minister (1572 – 1631).

Sometimes when misfortune befalls those we consider bad or condemnable, we are tempted to say ‘that serves them right’. The people who broke the news of the slaughter of the Galileans to Jesus in this Sunday’s Gospel conveyed it with the same “serves-them-right” attitude. But, in condemnation of such ignorance and self-justification Jesus responds: “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way, they were worse sinners than others? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish as they did.”

Similarly, about the eighteen who were killed when the tower of Siloam collapsed on them Jesus queries: “Do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others living in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all perish just as they did.”

Far from being deserving punishments for some misconduct, if anything, such disasters are lessons for others. They are lessons on the uncertainty of life; the necessity of being vigilant; of not being overly attached to that which we might easily lose at any moment. They are lessons that such could happen to anybody, and that if they don’t happen to us at this time, it is because of God’s mercy and love not because of what we deserve or that we are “in the state of grace”.

Some centuries ago, the Anglican priest, Reverend John Bradford was asked what he thought of the criminals who were being led to public execution and he replied: “But for the grace of God, there goes John Bradford”. In other words, if not the grace of God, he could possibly have been one of those criminals on death row.

That attitude of “but for the grace of God, there go I” helps us to make the best of the opportunity God gives us in prolonging our lives. It is not us today simply because God in his graciousness is offering us another opportunity to make amends and become better human beings.

Almost all of us have had very close shaves with death in some way and survived. Once, I was peeping in admiration at a farm through the window of a speed train. My head was out. The farmer frantically motioned at me to sit back. I was wondering why but the second I sat back, the train dashed through a very tight tunnel. There is something providential about such moments; you are given extra time to buckle up.

Yet, extra times are always limited. In football it is only 30 minutes. Like the barren fig tree that was graciously given a second chance in the Gospel, we are called to realise that the extra time we are given each time misfortune befalls others or each time we survive a near death experience has been given to us for a purpose; a chance to bear fruit. Someday the time will be up for us. We might not even have as much as the one year grace granted the fig tree. For some of us, this may be our last year and our last Lent.

So, instead of wasting our limited time standing in judgment over those whom misfortune has befallen, be them refugees or asylum seekers, such times should more wisely be received as an invitation from God to humble repentance before our extra time runs out.

C.S. Lewis writes that: “Fallen man is not simply an imperfect creature who needs improvement: he is a rebel who must lay down his arms. Laying down your arms, surrendering, saying you are sorry, realizing that you have been on the wrong track and getting ready to start life over again from the ground floor, that is the only way out of a ‘hole.’ This process of surrender, this turning back full speed is repentance.”

Experience clearly shows that the more we indulge in evil, the more it becomes normalized and the less we notice its existence. The more we involve in immorality, the easier we become comfortable in it with the tendency to rationalise that everyone does it. But we mustn’t fall for this great lie. It does not have to be this way. We are not animals driven by instincts to act. We can change and the time to choose is now.

Jesus began his public ministry with a solemn declaration: “The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the Gospel” (Mark 1:15). We have become so used to these words that we no longer perceive their urgency and revolutionary character.

With these words, Jesus announces that the decisive moment when God intervenes in human history and experience as foretold by the prophets is here; now is the time! And it will work for people according to how they respond to his words.

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