Repent and Hear Good News

“There is something greater than Jonah here” (Luke 11:32).
 
Just what is the sign of Jonah?  Because the imagery is so compelling in the story, we think of Jonah going down into the belly of the whale, which then becomes a sign of Jesus going down into death and then rising up again.
 
But it seems fairly obvious from the context of Jesus’ response to the crowds that the sign of Jonah was simply his preaching, at which the Ninevites suddenly and dramatically repented.
 
Jesus hears the people clamoring for some spectacular sign that will convince them to repent. They will receive no such sign, only his preaching that without repentance they were bringing down judgment on themselves. 
 
The contrast between Jonah and Jesus could not be greater.  Jonah was a reluctant prophet who first ran away from God and the mission to preach repentance in Nineveh, the capitol of Assyria, one of Israel’s most hated enemies. Jonah barely whispers his message in the marketplace, and the King of Assyria orders the whole nation to put on sackcloth and ashes.   It was an unlikely story, almost a joke, especially that such an arrogant, powerful kingdom would repent, but they did. Israel was expected to do as much, and far more because of God's many graces. 
 
In contrast, Jesus has preached his message, worked many signs and made the compelling case that repentance is the path to life. Still, the people will not hear the good news. There will be no other sign than this story of Jonah. If the call to life is not enough, what will some spectacular warning or celestial show accomplish?
 
On Ash Wednesday, we heard the simple message, “Repent and hear good news.”  This is the sign of Jonah. Do we see it, and will we act?
 

Teach Us to Pray

“This is how you are to pray” (Matt 6:9).
 
We cannot emphasize enough that when his disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray, he did not just give them a formula of words, he invited them to share his own relationship with his Abba.
 
They had seen him in prayer, knew that when he went apart, raised his face to the sky, held his arms up, he was experiencing an intimate encounter with God.
Jesus invites them to stand with him, lift up their minds, hearts, souls and bodies with the same intimate assurance that they were in the loving gaze of God.
 
When we pray with Jesus, our brother, we are exercising our essential dignity as children of God.  By our baptism we became dwelling places of the Trinity, called by the Creator into existence, named and loved eternally. We were incorporated into the risen body of Christ, becoming his presence in the world. We were flooded with light and wisdom by the Holy Spirit.  We are now the family of God, and when together we pray, God hears the voice of Jesus.
 
The petitions of the “Our Father” align us with God, enable us to grow in the nourishment of the Eucharist, our daily bread, give us the power to give and seek forgiveness in an ongoing act of redemption that reaches beyond us to everyone we touch.  We are encouraged not to be afraid, for God will always be with us, even in trial and temptation.
 
The prayer of Jesus is a continuous exchange between God and humanity, divine and human. To know it by heart and to say it often is to uncover the entire mystery of God and of ourselves as part of the Family of God.
 

Be Perfect

“The law of the Lord is perfect, refreshing the soul” (Ps 19).
 
It might have been enough for Jesus to get his disciples to keep the law. A world in which everyone observed the commandments would be just.
 
Today’s first reading from Leviticus 19 was probably well known to his followers. Moses’ teaching was called the “Code of Holiness,” and it was the goal of every Jew to fulfill it.
 
But Jesus wanted his disciples to grow beyond the law to the more challenging threshold of love, which requires more than obedience.  Every step across the line of legal perfection into the territory of mercy is true discipleship, and it often involves risk and uncertainty.
 
This was the point of Jesus’ famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10). A lawyer asked Jesus to define the limits of legal perfection. Jesus drew him into a story that compelled him to leap into the unknown demands of showing compassion to whomever he encountered in need. There is no rule book for this kind of response.
 
Jesus summarizes his daring invitation to practice compassion in today’s Gospel from Matthew 25, the parable of the Last Judgment. This teaching, like the Beatitudes, illustrates the realm of compassion that awaits the lawyer outside the safe limits of legal purity.  And it calls all of us who want to be his disciples. What the Samaritan did spontaneously when he encountered the robbery victim lying naked and beaten on the road is what Jesus asks us to do in the Works of Mercy. 
 
“I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me to drink, naked and you covered me, sick and you cared for me.” What you do out of compassion, regardless of the law, risk of contamination, danger, the criticism of others, you do for me. This fulfills the whole law, to love your neighbor as you love yourself.
 
Lent is our journey with Jesus to Jerusalem. Today’s readings alert us to what might lie around the next bend. Pray to be ready?

Leading the Way

“Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil” (Matt 4:1).
 
If original sin turned the garden of paradise into a desert, it was appropriate that Jesus begin his ministry to redeem the world by confronting the devil in the desert. The Adversary who defeated Adam and Eve will be thwarted by the New Adam who reclaims Creation and humanity by overcoming death on the tree of life.
 
Pairing Genesis 2 with Matthew 4 allows us to see the drama that recapitulates so many biblical images in salvation history. Jesus is led by the Spirit into the desert for 40 days, replaying Israel’s long sojourn under Moses, when temptations over bread, miracles and idolatry will seduce them into sin again.
 
Someone, representing all of us, had to get it right. Jesus, revealed as God’s true Servant, is obedient where Adam and Eve and their descendants were disobedient. The Serpent, cunning to the core, approaches Jesus not with raw enticement but with the scriptures: “If you are the Son of God,” make manna in the desert, let his angels protect you from harm, and, by the way, if you really plan to save the world, let me give it to you in all its splendor.
 
Jesus responds three times by also quoting scripture, denying Satan even the smallest acknowledgment. There is no real power except God. Everything else is illusion and blasphemy.
 
The primitive church preserved this story of how Jesus laid the foundations of the Kingdom of God by turning back the most basic denials of  divine sovereignty. We human beings cannot usurp the absolute role of the Creator. If we carry in our essential identities the image and likeness of God, it is because God intended to adopt us in Christ, not goad us to claim that we can be rival gods, little sovereigns free to create our own reality.
 
Lent is the time when we learn again to submit. The basic truth held by all the Peoples of the Book, the First Commandment of the Jews, the Submission of Islam and the Obedience of the Christ is the same.  The path to God is by the power of God, through God to God, all things in God. The lie of human pride and the folly of self-worship must end in surrender and service before we can begin our journey home to paradise.
 
We fast and pray and give ourselves away to recover our sight and sense of direction in the trackless waste sin has made of our world. Jesus, our brother, has gone before us and stirs our hearts to remember the garden we have been promised. Behold the tree of life ahead. It is the ladder to heaven, the burning bush, the pole in the desert displaying the seraphs, the staff of Moses, the sign of the Cross. See it, believe in it, embrace it, and it will guide you through death to eternal life.

Both Fast and Feast

“The days will come when the bridegroom is taken away from them, and then they will fast” (Matt 9:15).
 
The question of fasting is raised because of Lent. When the disciples of John the Baptist ask Jesus why his disciples are not observing the ordinary rule of fasting, he replies with the image of a wedding feast. During weddings, which often lasted many days, people were exempt from the obligation to fast. 
 
But at the heart of the image was Jesus’s claim that he was the bridegroom whose presence interrupted the fast. He was proclaiming a new nuptial covenant between God and Israel.  His presence invited everyone to feast, not fast. The “Good News” was cause for joy and celebration.
 
The image, of course, also anticipated the time when the bridegroom would be taken away. Jesus' death on the cross and return to the Father began a period of intense longing for the early Church. The Book of Revelation ends with the prayer, “Maranatha,” or “Come, Lord Jesus,” which expressed the expectation of Christians for the second coming. This prayer characterizes the celebration of Easter. Our belief in the resurrection of Jesus and his continued presence among us is a faith still in progress, a reality we believe but still await.
 
So the Christian Eucharist is both fast and feast, longing and celebration. The simplicity of our Communion, a small wafer of bread and a sip of wine, is the “pledge of future glory,” not the full banquet in the Kingdom. We still live hidden lives in Christ, even as we grow to maturity in his likeness as members of his body.
 
Lent repeats the ancient pilgrimage in the desert that defines God’s Pilgrim People. As a church, we are not there yet, but always going forward, nourished by the manna that is Christ, our Daily Bread, both fast and feast.
 

Losing and Finding

“What profit is there for one to gain the whole world yet lose or forfeit himself?” (Mark 9:25).
 
Jesus’ teaching on finding oneself by losing oneself is very Eastern and paradoxical. Yet the wisdom found its way into Western psychology in thinkers like Karl Jung and Erik Erickson, who saw the path to fulfillment as joining apparent opposites.    
  
Erickson divided life into stages a person completes by balancing basic needs. An infant matures by resolving its attachment to the mother with its need for autonomy.  Adolescents claim identity by distinguishing themselves from the group. Self-possession precedes our ability to share ourselves with another in intimacy.
 
Jesus tells his disciples that they must first carry their crosses. The burden of our identity is specific to each of us. No one can carry your cross, and you cannot shoulder another’s. By taking responsibility for ourselves we are ready to give ourselves to the community, to the needs of others, for the sake of Christ. 
 
If we never find ourselves we will lose ourselves, either by never maturing or because we forfeit our freedom and identity in the pursuit of some lesser prize unworthy of our full dignity.  
 
This paradox provides a lifetime of reflection, with new insights shedding light on our choices in new circumstances and challenges.   Discipleship frames and guides our progress.  As long as we are following and imitating Jesus, we will always lose ourselves and find ourselves in just the right way.
 

In the Beginning

“Your Father who sees in secret will repay you” (Matt 6:6).

Lent is an invitation to transform yourself from the inside out.  It is an invitation to recover the wilderness within your soul where you were called into existence, the moment of creation when God spoke your name and you came into being. 
 
Any notion we are self-made or self-sufficient dissolves in that desert place where we acknowledge our total dependence on God, who summoned us from the void, loved us out of nothing into someone, giving us consciousness and the capacity to respond like a newborn seeing for the first time the face of his mother, being imprinted with the image and likeness that gives us identity and destiny. 
 
Consider this primal contemplative challenge by closing your eyes and asking, “Who am I?” If you are an average person living in today’s image saturated and information dense culture, you will perhaps only begin to grasp the location of your real self  as a barely audible voice buried in the noise of competing versions of you.  The pulse of blood conveys your DNA, racial type, assigned and refined in the circuits of a thousand iterations of ancestral forces. Your gender identity and the intense cumulative memory of your first relationships and experiences  dominate your claim to be unique self, distinguishable from others, a true individual capable of freedom. Yet you are you, indomitable, self-directing, called to obey and discern, say yes or no, act or remain passive.
 
If you are privileged with the many technological mirrors that lock onto our waiting consciousness and its insatiable desire to engage and be affirmed, shape and be shaped, then you will hear the whisper of hidden mentors telling you at every turn who you are or are not, who you could be if you were different, and better, more than others, chosen to compete for the seamless identity of the perfect by your obedience to the higher call to take your place among the elite, the secure, the satisfied, the famous, their smiling faces flickering across our screens, embedded in our secret desires.  Take and eat the forbidden fruit of the tree in the garden of good and evil, where gods are made. 
 
To break the spell, we must seek out the desert within, where only one Voice holds us in existence, calls us beloved.  The hidden Abba, the embracing Mother, the Breath of Life teach us how to start over, become our true selves by praying, fasting and giving ourselves away.  The One who sees in secret is there , and as we turn to encounter the Mystery face to face, we know who we are. 

Then the journey of Lent can begin. 
 

All for All

“We have given up everything and followed you” (Mark 10:28)
 
Peter and the other disciples have just watched as the rich man decides he cannot part with his wealth to join them on the road.  They are further astonished when Jesus says it is near impossible for a rich man to enter the Kingdom. They thought that wealth was a sign of favor from God.
 
After some discussion among themselves, the disciple put Peter up to ask Jesus jut what sort of reward or benefit they should expect since they are giving up everything to follow him. 
 
In what may be one of the few bona fide jokes in the New Testament, Jesus tells them that for giving up house, family, land and children for his sake, they will get 100 times all that back. And he adds, “with persecutions.”
 
Ask any pastor or director of ministry or head of any orphanage or elementary school if they haven’t in fact gotten 100 times more than they ever gave up.  But it is a different kind of wealth, measured in responsibility and anxiety. And they will know the bargain, just how their lives have been enriched by their service. 
 
The rich man went away sad. The disciples continued their journey with Jesus, and they are witnesses to the joy of the Gospel, including the adversity and persecution it entails.  We are invited day by day to take the next step, deeper and deeper into our own discipleship. 
 
To give up everything is the goal, one step at a time.   
 

Good Teacher

"What must I do to inherit eternal life?"

The man who ran up and knelt before Jesus asking how he could inherit eternal life must have been overjoyed when Jesus asked him if he had kept all the commandments. He had indeed. He had been perfect in the law since his youth. For a moment he basked in Jesus approval. 

But in a breath, Jesus invites him to go beyond the commandments to the next level of his quest for perfection. "Go sell what you have, give it to the poor, and then come follow me."  The man is not prepared for such a radical step. If he gives up his many possessions he will be totally dependent on Jesus and his band of disciples, an odd lot to be sure, and making a road trip of uncertain implications. Is this what he wants? He decides that he is not ready, and he withdraws with sadness.  His wealth, once his greatest advantage, has been exposed as an obstacle and a burden, but one he cannot part with.

The gospel invites us to replay this scene for ourselves.  What would you ask of Jesus if you could meet him face to face? Do you want to be holy? Are you ready to follow him?   Imagine his look of love as he asks you to take the next step. What is that next step in your life-- the "one thing lacking," that is holding you back from a fuller commitment to Christ?  

Seek First

“Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given you besides” (Matt 6:34).
 
One of the ironies of modern life is that even as more and more people enjoy an unprecedented level of material well-being, we still see ourselves as “the Age of Anxiety.”  People will always find things to worry about.
 
Jesus addressed his own disciples, seeing how anxiety over food, clothing and basic necessities was distracting them from an awareness of God’s loving providence. If the birds of the air and the flowers of the field can live abundant lives, why not you?  Will all your worrying really change anything? 
 
Yet how hard it is to live this freely? We count our paychecks, setting aside some for the future. We buy on credit and try to manage our debt. We invest in more education to get a better job, planning a path forward, praying to avoid crisis or setbacks.
 
Even the wealthy must monitor their holdings, or rely on professional experts to invest and grow their money, manage their properties, protect their interests legally, use tax law to their advantage. With greater income come more expenses, more complicated lives. How many are trapped by their possessions, burdened by how money has dominated all their relationships, spoiled their personal happiness?
 
At the heart of today’s Gospel is Jesus’ desire that his disciples have the right priorities.  “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.  This is the secret of peace of mind and freedom from anxiety.   If you are right with God, then you will always be prepared for life’s inevitable ups and downs. 
 
St. Paul sets the example of someone who has had abundance and want, suffering and satisfaction, failure and success. What held him on course was his commitment to do God’s will and to seek what was right.  His life was a great adventure with God and he rejoices to have always had more than enough.  Jesus wants this same freedom and joy for all his disciples.  

 

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