by Deacon John Pippenger, O.P. and Mrs. Linda Pippenger, O.P.
During the Lenten Season we are challenged to spend extra time in prayer, fasting and almsgiving. In today’s gospel, Jesus reminds us of the following commandments. First, The Lord our God is Lord alone! You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength. And the second is: You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
“I will be your God and you will be my people.” Here is our reminder, amidst Lent and a pandemic, that God has not abandoned us. In the beginning of Lent, we were so fired up and passionate to offer sacrifices to God. However, we soon started to feel the weight of our sacrifices, maybe even failing in our fidelity to them. Now in the third week of Lent, Jeremiah sends us a reminder that despite our own infidelity, God will always be there for us. Although the words are harsh, this is also a reminder to us of what happens when we are not docile to God, when our “faithfulness has disappeared.” Too often, we try to turn our faith into a one-sided ordeal, contrary to the relationship He wants. God wants to work with us. We must be open to listening and not stiffening our necks.
The Great Commandment requires that we love God totally and our neighbor as ourselves. Its fuller meaning expands as our discipleship deepens. I am reading Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents by Isabel Wilkerson. The Pulitzer Prize winning author brilliantly exposed the unspoken, yet clearly heard, directives about who belongs where within our country. Who has an inherent right to a nicer car, a certain type of job, a better education, and who does not? We Americans still do not obey the letter, much less the spirit, of the civil rights legislations promulgated since the 1960s.
The servant is forgiven his debt to his master. Why? Compassion. The master knows what it is to suffer under the burden of debt. Freed from his debt, the forgiven-servant refuses to forgive the debt of a fellow servant. Why? Greed. Power. Arrogance. Who knows?
Naaman was of the mind that if it’s worth having, then we have to work hard to get it. He resisted the ease with which Elisha was offering him for healing: to plunge seven times in the Jordan. Naaman was not buying it. The River Jordan was discolored, sluggish, and muddy. The rivers in his own land were far clearer and cool, gushing forth from mountain streams. If the task was to be an easy one, surely, it would have been much more convenient to have washed in the Pharpar and Abana rivers of his own land and been healed of his disease.
What is the Law to a Jew? One scholar calls it “a yoke that becomes a tree of life.” It is a demanding teacher from whom we could never draw an “A” but who taught us not only how to think but how to live. Jesus, being a devout Jew, loved the Law and lived it every moment of his life.
Undoubtedly, the Lenten theme of today’s readings is mercy. Much ink has been spilled over the Parable of the Prodigal Son. We are told how outrageous the son’s action are, to what a degree of degradation he falls, and the outlandish response of his father in breaking all societal norms in running to meet this son, who has been so disrespectful to him and brought shame upon the whole family. Yet, the genius of Jesus’ parable is he gets us to see God from a different perspective, a perspective we can understand, for, despite all the cultural norms the father breaks, we do understand—love does such things. I am reminded of the great joy parents display when an addict son or daughter makes the slightest move to seek help for their addiction. In their grief and anguish over their child’s condition, they know they cannot change their child, but they will run when they see even a flicker of a desire to change.
Our Scriptures today match any TV, Play or Film telling the story of human hate, jealousy, resentment, crime and murder. As Carl Jung would say, we all have within us the dark side of life, the murderer, the rapist, the criminal and other personas deep within our unconscious, that sometimes emerge in our dreams and fantasies and actual behavior. It horrifies and embarrasses us to discover these parts of ourselves and to own them. 'Certainly, not I,' we think, 'that hateful, murderous thing, maybe someone else would, but not me.'
It can be a temptation to deny one's dependence on God, especially if one seems to have all of the blessings of this world; money, clothes, a warm house, food, medicines, and most importantly, good health. Sadly, the belief that one is the sole source of one's blessings can foster in oneself an "each man for himself" attitude.
“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and the great ones make their authority over them felt. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever wishes to be great among you shall be your servant; whoever wishes to be first among you shall be your slave. Just so, the Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many.” [Matthew 20: 25-28]
One of the ‘mom-isms” I heard frequently as a child was, “Do as I say, not as I do”. It sounds like the message of the scribes and Pharisees in today’s reading. Yet Jesus warns us to notice the integrity and coherence between the message and the action, the preaching and the practice. Though I heard that ‘mom quote’ often, I never experienced the disconnect of that message in my family. However, I did take to heart the awareness of observing and following those who lived and breathed the message of Jesus. I noticed and sought to imitate those who ‘walked the talk’ even when no one was looking or praising them.
In my early years of theology studies in the Dominican Order I never quite understood what the word “Grace” meant. It sounded really important and holy, and I knew that Dominicans were always talking about GRACE in their homilies, but I just never GOT it. For me, “Grace” was the prayer you say before a meal. The beautiful hymn Amazing Grace – so much a part of our southern religious milieu – has always been my favorite Christian hymn, but even so, if someone would have asked me what “amazing grace” meant I probably would have said, “I think it means that God is really amazing.”