Sunday, Feb. 28, is the Third Sunday of Lent (Year C).

Mass Readings: Exodus 3:1-8, 13-15; Psalms 103:1-8, 11; 1 Corinthians 10:1-6, 10-12; Luke 13:1-9

Today’s readings provide a beautiful vision of the patience and mercy of God. But then they add a terrifying “but …”

The Gospel ends with the Parable of the Fig Tree. In it, the owner of a fig tree that hasn’t produced fruit for three years has had enough. “Cut it down!” he says. “Why should it exhaust the soil?”

If the owner is God in the story, then the gardener is the Church, praying for mercy on the tree. “Sir, leave it for this year also,” says the gardener. “It may bear fruit in the future. If not, you can cut it down.” The owner agrees: This is a beautiful story that tells of the patient mercy of God. The tree stands — but there’s a “but.”

Yes, God is patient, but that tree is a goner in a year if it doesn’t clean up its act.

This is the same lesson as the one that begins the Gospel. We hear about two different tragedies: one in which Galileans are disgraced by Pilate and one where 18 people are killed by a falling tower.

Jesus says of the victims, “Do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

In other words, God does not strike us down if we don’t repent — but it remains true that if we don’t repent we will be lost in the end anyway. God doesn’t lash out at us for sinning; but if we ignore him, it will be the same in the end as if he had.

St. Paul described it to the Corinthians by sharing Jewish history with them: The Jews were brought out of Egypt, they passed through the sea, and they were patiently fed and given drink by the Lord. Yet after all that patience, they rejected God’s gifts and “were struck down in the desert.”

We have been very blessed, even more than the Hebrews were, because we have been welcomed into the company of Christ. God has showered gifts on us. But St. Paul says the same fate awaits us if we reject these gifts. “Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall.”

God is who he is and does not change, as Moses learns. “I am who am,” God says. He is the one who hears the cry of his people and comes to their rescue. He is always the God who is described in the Psalm: “Merciful and gracious is the Lord, slow to anger and abounding in kindness. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so surpassing is his kindness toward those who fear him.”

But … what?

But how about those who don’t fear him? How is he toward them? What is he like toward us when we complain about his expectations?

God is eternally good and patient. He never fails. But we do. The good news is, it’s never too late to repent — until time runs out.

Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.