Wednesday, March 09, 2011

Who needs to know?

Joel 2:1-2, 12-17 Psalm 51:1-17 Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

Within a Lenten context of Jesus' lesson, the question is not what or even whether we are giving UP something for Lent. Perhaps the more appropriate question for disciples and for the Church as the Body of Christ should be about what we are GIVING for Lent.

Jesus speaks of "giving alms" which is the language of charitable giving to the poor, and He speaks clearly of fasting and praying as well. He does not seem to give one priority over another, but rather speaks of each as of equal importance - none of which seems inclined toward personal benefit or personal achievement on any level. As a point in fact, Jesus clearly speaks of keeping such things rather quiet lest we endanger ourselves - and deny the Holy Father His due glory - by pursuing our own personal glory or individual achievement.

It is a common thing for Christians to speak of giving up something for Lent, but I have noticed a substantial degradation of these spiritual practices when we speak of them publicly as some grand sacrifice that many do not understand and do not see as even necessary. Even worse, we speak of "giving up _____ for Lent" as some grand personal achievement as we feebly attempt to "one-up" a fellow practitioner or judge whether another's sacrificial choice is adequate. When we do this, are we not "sounding the trumpet" or perhaps implicitly soliciting pity if not admiration - "like the hypocrites" - when we do such things so publicly?

In the historic Church, Lent was a time of preparation for new catechumens; new Christians who were preparing and being prepared for baptism on Easter into the Church, the Covenant, and a life of discipleship. For the catechumen, it was not a matter of "personal" salvation or receiving a "personal" Lord and Savior, as intensely personal as the journey must have surely been; it was a time to "count the cost" of choosing to follow Jesus. It was a time of preparation for a much larger and broader application within the Holy Church. This time of intense preparation was reminiscent of Jesus' forty-day journey in the wilderness in preparation for His earthly ministry. It was not at all about Jesus "personally".

As such, Lent was necessarily a time of intense prayer, intense study, and intense fasting. It was a time of self-denial and ideally a time of a great spiritual awakening; and because of this, it must surely have also been a time of great trial and even greater temptation - for there is nothing more desirable and tempting for us than that which we cannot have.

Are such practices "mandatory"? Are they biblically required? They don't seem to be, but notice also that Jesus speaks of these practices as presumed; that is, they should already be regular spiritual practices. He never says nor does He suggest, however, that one no longer needs to do these things. But asking about "minimum requirements" suggests that we may be willing to do almost anything for the Lord ... but only what we must ... and only within reason. It is rather like a student approaching the teacher and asking what he or she can do "just to pass the course". No concern for an "A", and even less concern for the knowledge to be gained. Just wanna pass the course. No more.

Rather than tell us we no longer "must" do these things, Jesus speaks of praying, fasting, and charitable giving in a much more profound way. Was Jesus' journey in the wilderness mandated as a continuing practice of the Church? Well, Matthew tells of Jesus being "led up by the Spirit into the wilderness" (4:1). Are we now in any less of a "wilderness"? And Jesus seems also to have been "called out" for the purpose of confrontation with the evil one. The way it is written and the way it has been traditionally taught, it seems implied that it was a spiritual "show-down". "IF You are the Son of God ..."

But it is also written in such a way that Jesus is indeed being "led" by the Spirit of the Lord for the purpose of being "tempted", which seems to have come AFTER He had endured the forty-day fast and was weak with hunger. Jesus was "famished", as it is written, and must surely have been in a rather delicate state in which most of us would have stumbled.

Was it the evil one who was administering this test? Was the evil one really trying to figure out exactly who he was dealing with? Some say yes; others say no, but they say "no" in the tradition of Abraham being called forward to sacrifice his beloved son, Isaac. The Lord God Himself needed to know something about Abraham. It was the Spirit of the Lord who led Jesus into the wilderness; He had not been "summoned" by the evil one, so the temptation had to be according to the Lord's own purposes; not Satan's. What Satan knows or is even entitled to know is inconsequential.

You and I do not have to figure this out, but there is something we must be mindful of as we enter into this forty-day journey of Lent that precedes Easter. We must be mindful that the evil one will tempt us, but the Lord our God may test us - but not beyond our capacity to endure. This is a crazy world that offers up all kinds of deceitful comforts, things we embrace rather easily as "normal". Some are good, of course, and don't seem harmful but some are spiritually questionable not because they are inherently so but because of the dominant place we allow such things in our lives. It could well be that whenever we choose to pursue personal comfort, security, and happiness for ourselves and for those whom we love, our fidelity to the Lord our God is called into question. Perhaps it is that the Almighty Himself begins to wonder whether we can be trusted with what He means to impart to us.

Prayer, fasting, and charitable giving are spiritual disciplines of the Church, but they are also intensely personal choices you and I must make not only during the season of Lent but each and every day when we are called to decide to "choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve" (Joshua 24:15), the same challenge Joshua put forth to the people of the Lord - to serve the "gods" of their past or to serve the One, True, and Living God who calls us forward into His future: "'For I know the thoughts that I think toward you', says the Lord [through His prophet Jeremiah]; 'thoughts of peace and not of evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon Me and go and pray to me, and I will listen to you. And you will seek Me and find Me when you search for Me with all your heart.'" Jeremiah 29:11-13

In the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. As it was in the beginning, is now, and will forever be. Amen.

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