The Third Sunday of Lent

[Scripture Readings: Ex 20:1-17; 1 Cor 1:22-25; Jn 2:13-25]

Fr. NeilAn experience that most of us have probably had at one time or another is to gradually slide into a way of behaving without giving it much thought. We have reasons for what we are doing that make sense, at least when we look at them individually. However, there comes a point when we realize that little by little we have let our priorities get out of balance. I wonder if this is not a useful approach to take in understanding Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple. There is no evidence from the gospels that the merchants and money changers were doing anything dishonest. The animals were used for sacrifices in the Temple cult. Since Roman coins could not be used to pay the Temple tax, the money changers were performing a necessary service. Commentators point out that they were probably in the outer court of the Temple, not in the inner courts. It would be more convenient to have them in the Temple itself rather than at a distance. Nevertheless Jesus’ action makes it clear that in his eyes convenience had been allowed to encroach on respect for God’s holiness.

What about our attitudes? None of us would knowingly show disrespect for God. But what about those little compromises that add up to putting our convenience ahead of an attitude of adoration and respect for God’s holiness? We may have difficulty with some of the ways that the Old Testament speaks about God, but there is a clear message that God is holy and while he is presented as a merciful and compassionate Father, he is not to be treated casually. Showing respect for God may be inconvenient at times and it may contradict our pragmatic way of getting things done quickly and efficiently; nevertheless our relationship with God is not to be reduced to one more item on our daily agenda that we fit in with the others as best we can.

The Cleansing of the TempleConcern for God’s holiness does not leave out our concern for each other. More than half the commandments in the Decalogue are concerned with how we treat each other. God is holy and because we are God’s people we are to be holy also. As such we are to treat each other with justice and respect. With the coming of Jesus we are called to go beyond justice and respect in our behavior toward one other to the self-sacrificing love that Jesus showed for us. This is only possible if we have an effective realization of our dignity as men and women created in the image and likeness of God. Conversely, there is no doubt in my mind that if we lose our sense of God’s holiness, it is inevitable that we will eventually lose our respect for one another. We will reduce ourselves and others to economic objects, to be used for our own advantage and to insure that we get a good return on our investment of time and energy.

To a strict pragmatist too much talk about holiness, perhaps any talk about holiness, doesn’t make sense. At best it is irrelevant to getting the most out of life and it may even interfere with enjoying life. But as many of us have learned the hard way God’s foolishness is wiser than our wisdom. Lent is a time to look at our behavior according to God’s values and it invites us to look deeper at our basic attitudes. Have I little by little drifted away from an appreciation of God’s holiness? Do I behave toward my brothers and sisters as toward those who have been created in the image and likeness of God? Do I have a sense of myself as someone who has been called to be holy?

Thanks to Hermanoleon Clipart.

The Third Sunday of Lent

[Scripture Readings: Ex 17:3-7, Rom 5:1-2, 5-8, Jn 4:5-42]

Fr. NeilG.K. Chesterton once quipped: How odd of God to choose the Jews. To dismiss the saying as an anti-Semitic jibe would be to miss the point and an important insight into God’s way of entering our lives. Put yourself back in history three millennia or so and give yourself the job of choosing a people for God, who will be his means of bringing salvation to the world. I doubt that a band of state slaves in Egypt would be the first choice of any of us. Even after they had been chosen they complained, rebelled and turned away from God who delivered them. Yet God was faithful to his choice. With patience and love he supported them, punished them and continued to redeem them from their own infidelity.

By the world’s standards, ancient or modern, that is indeed odd. Yet it is God’s way. It is the way Jesus, the Word of God incarnate, worked when he walked on the earth. Jesus did not choose his disciples from the Jewish aristocracy or the religious leaders, but from among fishermen and tax collectors; those who where held in disdain, when not rejected as hopeless sinners. It is unlikely that any of Jesus’ contemporaries, including his disciples, would have chosen a Samaritan woman, and one with questionable morals at that, as a model for spreading the good news about Jesus. Yet that is what John presents to us in this morning’s gospel reading.

The Woman at the WellJesus accepts the woman as she comes to him and he asks for her help. With patience he leads her beyond the limitations of her understanding. He did not cover up her faults. I doubt that she was happy with Jesus’ remark about her husbands. The Greek simply says men. Still Jesus brought her to the hope that she had met the Messiah she had heard about. Transformed in her hope she could share the joy of her discovery and bring her neighbors to Jesus. Having fulfilled her task she fades again into the background. The townspeople no longer need her. She has brought them to Jesus.

It is easy to bring Chesterton’s quip up to date: How odd of God to choose us. Each one of us has been chosen to be an evangelist. Will we accept God’s choice? Will we allow Jesus to lead us beyond our limited understandings? Will we continue to listen when Jesus’ words expose our failings and sinfulness? Jesus gave his life for us when we were weak and sinful. Will we follow his example and sacrifice ourselves for those we dislike and disagree with? Will we be willing to step aside when we have completed the task given to us and continue on the painful and joyful journey of following Christ? In the eyes of many of our contemporaries that is more than an odd way to live. It is a waste. Yet because of Jesus’ love for us, God’s love has been poured into our hearts. Living in God’s love we can accomplish what is beyond our understanding and capabilities. Let us then accept God’s love, and since God’s love is more than we can contain the only way that we can accept it is by sharing it

Thanks to Hermanoleon Clipart.

The Third Sunday of Lent

[Cycle C Scripture Readings: Ex 3:1-8, 13-15; I Cor 10:1-6, 10-12; Lk 13:1-9]

A few years ago, there was a popular book which claimed to pinpoint the reason that so many corporations, businesses, and organizations were in trouble. The book was called The Peter Principle and it claimed that people get promoted to the level of their incompetence. They get promoted beyond the limits of what they can do, and suddenly can no longer function competently. Learning what are viable limits is the crux of many issues in life. The walls of this church will support two stories, but add a couple more stories, and they will collapse. We would quickly discover the limits of what they can carry. Most athletic games are constructed around limits which provide a challenge, but yet are humanly possible. Build baseball stadiums with walls 600 feet from homeplate, and the home run leader will have 3 or 4 for the year.

Some limits we set; the others we discover. This is a dynamic which pervades our personal and religious lives. From a very early age, Erik Erikson tells us, we begin to “test the limits.” We learn to know our capacities by exercising initiative — propelling ourselves around our little worlds, investigating closed drawers, and asserting ourselves where we can. And when we go too far, beyond our limits, authority figures are there to reinforce the limits and give us a taste of what guilt means. If we never take initiative to go beyond the limits we have known, we risk stagnating in safe mediocrity. We neither know nor develop potentials lying hidden within. We never come to that assertive self-understanding of saying: THIS IS WHO I AM. But normally during the course of life, we also find ourselves in situations where we have gone beyond our real limits. From a bruised, chastened and humbled consciousness, we say “This is who I am’ in acknowledging our failure and even guilt.

The Gospel’s call to repentance is addressed to this point in our awareness where our sense of responsibility and realization converge with our sense of irresponsibility and failure. Gaudium et Spes of Vatican II says that it is by the power to know ourselves in the depths of our being that we rise above the world of mere objects. Then we turn to the deep recesses of our own being where God — who probes the heart — awaits us and where we ourselves decide our own destiny in the sight of God. We co-create with God the trajectories of our lives by the choices we make. Repentance means turning to God’s presence as we sift through the consequence and possibilities of our choices. Guilt takes on the fullness of its meaning only in our personal relationship with God. We tend to misplace its real significance by confusing it with responses to impersonal norms or the disapproval of others.

We are quick to pacify the sense of unease we feel by comparing ourselves with others. We cover over our violations of limits by forms of assertiveness. Jesus read through the implicit assertion of the people in today’s Gospel. Others are “more guilty” and “worse sinners.” We read our own prosperity, security and safety as signs of our good standing, of our righteousness. Our consciences are untroubled. Earlier in chapter four of this letter to the Corinthians, Paul can say “I have nothing on my conscience, but that does not mean I am acquitted. God is my judge.” How many of us can even say that we have nothing on our conscience?

The conversation between the master and the gardener is being spoken over our heads. “Cut it down. It’s just taking up space and depleting the environment . There is no real life, no fruit. Just showy leaves, for the sake of looks.” It is the word of Christ which spares us, which saves us. “Leave it for a year.” It is his word and work which spade the soil of our hearts, but which wait for us to bring forth fruit.

If the Israelites who experienced the intervention of God leading them out of slavery could be warnings and examples for us to learn from, so too is Moses. He was drawn to approach the Burning Bush by a sense of surprise, awe, and wonder. He crossed the threshold of the mundane task of shepherding his flock and allowed himself to be addressed by the numinous, by the holy. You are standing on holy ground. There is a world of divine reality and significance which has the power to break through the limits and thresholds of our normal and “mundane” lives. Each of us has known a “burning bush” — an event in which the holiness of God has broken through and spoken in our lives. God has intervened. I have heard their cries and “I know well what they are suffering.” There is a meeting between our knowledge of “this is who I am” and the God who reveals himself to us as “I Am Who Am.” This is a burning bush which can purify and transform the boundaries and limits of our lives.