Reflection for 10 February 2008 (first Sunday in Lent)
Again and again in the readings for this past week we heard calls to change our hearts, to cut through whatever system allows us to substitute “doing it right” and feeling justified about it in place of the proper response, which is extending to others the boundless mercy we have received. “Rend your hearts, not your garments,” says the prophet Joel, (2:13) while Isaiah criticizes the people for allowing their fasts to degenerate into legalistic attempts at controlling God while not breaking through to the justice that is the legitimate aim of the fasts. “This, rather, is the fasting that I wish: releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke; setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke.” (58:6) Jesus warns his disciples against doing even good things for the wrong reasons: don’t bother to give alms, or fast, or pray if all that it will do is give your ego something to hang its hat on, some way to feel “justified” before God, to feel good about yourself, to make other people think more of you.
The readings for today compare the way of life that has prevailed from the beginning of time with the new way of living that Jesus exemplifies. The man and the woman in GN 2 were created to live in immediacy to God, “naked,” as it were, with nothing to prove, no ego to defend, no need for any further identity than the only true identity they had – who they were in God, that is, beloved son and daughter, made in the very image of God. The “fall” into sin was at once an “ascent” into knowledge, but with it came the loss of that cosmic humility that engendered naked immediacy toward God and toward one another, so it also entailed the need to hide the parts of ourselves we aren’t proud of, to create identities for our egos to hang on to, whether the identities of “success,” popularity, power over other people, religiosity, degrees earned, or anything else that would name us apart from our true identity – the simple, unadorned self that we are in God.
Jesus was tempted by all that same falsity: “If you are the Son of God,” says the tempter over and over, then it’s all about you, but Jesus makes clear that to be the child of God is to be centered upon God, not using God as an excuse to center upon ourselves. We see it in today’s gospel: the temptation to use his power for himself, to garner cheap popularity with a magic trick on top of the temple, to “sell his soul,” that is, to forego his stance of total self-giving to God, for the sake of power. I can imagine the tempter urging Jesus, “Think of all the people you could help with all this power, all the laws you could pass to help the poor, all the good things you could do.” However, it would still make the “you” the center of the equation, instead of making him transparent to the will of God. The pattern set from the beginning of human history, a pattern that places me at the center of every equation, is now reversed by the pattern of Jesus, the new man, the new model of authentic humanity, who made himself transparent to the will of God.