Every place I have lived has had a town or town that people look down upon. Sometimes it is because the community is poor or unsophisticated, sometimes it is because of the town’s hosting a prison or a mental health hospital. More than once I was told that my actions might send my mother to the town where the state mental hospital was located.
Fraternal correction has a long history in religious life, but what is not clear is how well it has worked. It is very hard to hear that we are not doing things the way they should be done. Indeed, it is not just religious life, but in my experience, families too have a form of fraternal correction. And in significant cases, we could refer to interventions with people who have problems with alcohol and drugs as those needing fraternal correction.
When we become anxious, we seek something tangible and concrete to comfort us. For little children, it could be a stuffed animal, which helps them to sleep, such as the tiger Hobbes was for Calvin. We are people geared to see, to touch, to feel. We are experts in the concrete world of the senses.
But when it comes to the less observable parts of life, such as love or affection from another, we cannot always be completely reassured by tangible signs. There comes a time when we simply must trust. This is true whether we are discussing another person or with God.
To deal with this temptation, it is the reason that images were not carved in representing God. And on the surface, it is why the people fashion a Golden Calf. They believe on some level that this is the way to strengthen their faith. But it is the lack of faith this action represents. Moses is delayed, the clouds are scary, and the mountain is far. When will Moses come back? Is he even still alive?
If we are looking for dependable signs, it is in seeking to place ourselves into situations where we would be able to experience God. We seek out others, even though they too require trust, because people are made in the image and likeness of God.
We see time and again that the Israelites have trouble trusting God. So too do we. Let us pray for an increase of faith in God.
Why does it seem that God does not always answer our prayers? Why when a loved one is sick, does the illness not always get cured? Why do great tragedies happen that cause such great suffering? Why? This question of suffering, and its meaning, is a challenging one. Rabbi Harold Kushner took up this question in his well know book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, in reflecting on the death of his son , Aaron.
Whenever we read or hear about water in the Bible, our minds should immediately turn to baptism. Water is the profound symbol for baptism because it can both give life and deal death. In baptism, by dying to sin we become open to the new and real life of God. The gospel stresses this. The man at Bethesda has no one to get him into the pool when it is stirred by the spirit.
But for Jesus, it is not necessary to wait for even a second for such action. By word, Jesus heals the man. But much like Sunday’s story with the blind man, the Pharisees cannot see a man healed by Christ, but only a man carrying a mat on the Sabbath, something not permitted on the Sabbath. Because when we think of our own baptism, it is always first and foremost about hearing the words of Jesus that lead us, because Jesus is the Way.
Do we consider the impact of our baptism? Do we associate with people and engage in activities that are likely to help us become closer to Christ? Do we see any responsibility to helping others learn about Jesus and to experience the profound new life God longs to give everyone? Have we used this season of Lent to fast from those things that keep us from God?
Ultimately that is what our season of Lent is all about. We do not do penance because there is something innately good in suffering, but because through this suffering we are able to focus on those things that are really important. It is not about willpower, but rather doing those things so that we can come to profound new life.
“Thus says the LORD: Lo, I am about to create new heavens and a new earth.” I love getting something new. There is such enjoyment in getting a new car, for instance, if not for the “new car” smell alone. But to understand the “newness” God wishes to bring, we must understand a little Aristotelian philosophy about change.
Greek philosophy, and indeed science itself, had some beginnings in trying to account for change. What does it mean for things to change? When a banana rots, for example, is it still a banana? Or, take a baby, and compare that same child to when they are an adult. Do they become someone else when they are older? What changes? And how do we explain change?
For Aristotle, change was explained by developing concepts of substance (what something is) and accidents (qualities that can change without changing what something fundamentally is). So for example, we know what a car is so we know its substance. Whether it is a small car, or regardless of the color of the car (examples of accidents). (It is this concept of substance and accident that we use when we discuss how Jesus becomes really present in the Eucharist. It is because the substance of bread and wine in fact changes.)
So when God says he is creating a new heavens and a new earth, what type of change is this? It could be accidental, insofar as God could make accidental changes by creating more heavens and more earths (quantity is an “accident” using Aristotle’s thinking). Or is God referring to a change of substance, so that something existing becomes something entirely new.
I would argue that God is referring to something completely different. It describes the new heavens and new earth where “there shall always be rejoicing and happiness in what I create“, and “No longer shall the sound of weeping be heard there, or the sound of crying.” It is a substantially different heavens and earth because what is changing is in fact the Kingdom of God.
We are reminded today that we too are called to a deep fundamental change, not into something entirely unrecognizable, but in that we become more visibly the persons we were created to be. So, rejoice in this season of Lent, because due to our prayer, almsgiving and fasting we are becoming something wonderfully new.
What is your attitude toward others? In examining your own life, do you consider that “things are not so bad” because you are not committing big sins like murder, or adultery, major theft or the like? Do you look down on certain people that do not hold what you consider to be worthy values?
For example, think about types of people that you look down on, people that you might even feel angry about. For example, there are some who seem to have hatred for those on welfare, because they are viewed as lazy and worthless. Some get mad at the homeless, since they might smell and can be odd. Maybe there are members of your family, or those with whom you work that you feel angry about. Whatever it is, we need to be careful about such thoughts, as today’s gospel warns. Why?
Well, for me, I know that it can be quite easy to slip into thoughts like the Pharisee, who is just simply so proud of himself. He has completed his spiritual checklist, and he is perfect. He does all of the external things that might indicate holiness and spirituality. But, he has not really examined his interior life, so that he can see those areas where he too has sinned and fallen short. He is like the rich young man who has kept all the commandments, but has not recognized how his many possessions keep him from loving God.
But it gets worse; he becomes grateful that he is not as bad as others, especially the publican in the back of the synagogue. Thank goodness you have not made me like the others in the world, those lowly persons who have little or no redeeming value. He not only does not see where he needs to convert in his interior life, but also looks down upon what he views as people who are inferior and do not even try, in his eyes.
I find it easy to judge and to do the same. I find it is too easy in my life to look down on others, especially those who do not seem to fit my standards. It is all too easy to judge the poor, the homeless, the refugee, the undocumented worker, the uneducated, indeed any person that I have labeled “undesirable”.
The solution is right at hand, simply to acknowledge the necessity of God for salvation. Is it that the publican was justified because his sins were lesser? Probably not. Rather, it is that the publican could acknowledge that he needed God’s mercy and forgiveness, and he sought this mercy and forgiveness not because he deserved it, but because he knew that God was generous in giving it.
The Pharisee on the other hand, did not think he needed forgiveness, because he could only focus on all those things he had done so well. He was blind to the need for God in his life. What is interesting is that all his attention is focused outward, on his good actions and the defects of others.
God reminds us that it is only in looking inward, to the presence of God that is within, that we can identify our need for God, and the heartfelt healing and peace that can come our way. When we are so convinced of your position, of our perfection that we cannot imagine needing to grow, then indeed we have a heart so full of ourselves there is no room for God.
But, alas, if we are able to see our need for God’s mercy, forgiveness and love, then we also learn that it is never too late to return to God, as we are invited to do in the first reading. The pope asked recently, “When was the last time you went to confession?” Not a bad question for us to reflect on this day.
What does it mean to say that God is love? Such is a complicated question, without an easy answer, since God is beyond our ability to completely understand or grasp. But today’s first reading provides us with a powerful reminder that part of that answer is that God is a forgiving and loving God. It is that simple. God always seeks our return, even when we stop trusting and loving God.
“Assyria will not save us, nor shall we have horses to mount; We shall say no more, ‘Our god,’ to the work of our hands.” Whether it is trusting in God or trusting in others, it can be difficult to do so. We often like to be in control, relying on those things we can do ourselves. But just as the person who cannot trust others is lonely, so too for us, those who do not trust God miss out on the amazing life God offers.
We do not need to look to far to see that the attitude of looking to a powerful country, having horses, or looking at what we can do ourselves as “gods” is quite prevalent today.
By whose power? Such is the question that gets posed in today’s gospel. By whose power does Jesus do the things he does? It is simply a ridiculous question. How can good and life giving deeds not come from God? How is that? The miracles of Jesus point to the fact the Kingdom of God is in fact in our midst.
The power of Jesus, which healed and made whole is in fact made available to us when we trust in Jesus. The question before us today is this: Are we with God or against him? Do we gather or scatter? We know we can do amazing things when we are with God, and we know that we experience the power of God deep within us when we open our hearts to a relationship with him. But we can also experience the temptation to ignore God, to turn the other way, to seek our own desires.
This question, as the psalm tells us, is one of the heart. Do we soften our hearts to receive God, or do we harden our hearts and reject God? Are we able to allow God to come into our hearts, to trust in God, even when it is hard, so that we can experience the goodness of the Lord, or do we close our hearts, harden them, turning away from God and his lifegiving way.
So much of the season of Lent is to soften the heart, much like a farmer needs to soften the soil before planting. We seek to do more that opens ourselves to God, and to give up those things that keep us from embracing the way of God. And so, “If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts.”
Isn’t it amazing that God is so close to us? Have you ever thought about that? The all-powerful, all-knowing God is accessible to us simply by asking. “For what great nation is there that has gods so close to it as the LORD, our God, is to us whenever we call upon him?” Isn’t it amazing, that simply by asking, we can have a relationship that changes us forever, and for the good?
And yet, if you are like me, it can be so easy to get caught up in the activities of life, with those things that are a distraction or even a waste of time, that it can be hard to even ask God for this relationship. It can be quite the challenge to give the growth of this relationship the time it nees so that all we do flows out of this powerful relationship.
Jesus longs to offer us so much. To be sure, there is eternal life. But there is also the grace that enables us to see the needs of others, the grace that enables us to take on risks that help us to see more clearly those gift given to us for God’s glory, and that grace that reminds us that even when we reject God through sin, there is the love and mercy of God constantly poured out to heal us.