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Thursday, second week of Lent

February 24, 2005

Blessed Thursday!

Jeremiah 17:5-10 (it’s better to trust in God than man)
Psalm 1:1-6 “Happy are they who hope in the Lord”
+Luke 16:19-31 (the story of Lazarus & the rich man)

Where are we looking for the answers to life’s questions? When we want to know what defines “the good life”, have we bought into our culture’s answers or are we being counter-cultural by embracing God’s perspective?

It’s not hard to confirm God’s observation that those who follow man’s advice for life end up dry and empty, like a tree in a barren wasteland. All we have to do is glance at the tabloids, at the sordid trail of divorces, affairs, drug addictions and suicides that are the common fare of the “heroes and heroines” of Hollywood. No, happiness and fulfillment won’t be found by following that leadership. The tinsel smiles hide empty hearts. Wealth, fame, pleasure, knowledge–none of these hold the secret to happiness, certainly not eternal happiness. King Solomon tried that experiment thousands of years ago and came to the same conclusion: “all is vanity and a chase after wind” (Ecclesiastes 1-2). The rich man described in today’s Gospel brings out the eternal dimension of unhappiness. We’re not told if he was really happy amid the luxury of his earthly life, but he certainly wasn’t happy in the torment of the hereafter.

Likewise, it’s not hard to confirm God’s observation that those who do things His way are like a tree planted near the waters, green and fruitful even when things get difficult. The lives of the saints shine with joy and fruitfulness even in the midst of severe trials, and Jesus portrays Lazarus’ eternal happiness in the bosom of Abraham. Our own experiences bear this out as well. The more we understand and follow through with God’s plan for our lives, the more we flourish, even in the midst of hard times. On the contrary, the farther we are from God’s plan for us, whether through ignorance, neglect or outright resistance, the more we wither inside, even if outwardly everything seems fine.

So how do we find God’s answers for our lives? Should we be looking for billboards in the sky? Apparitions? Miracles? The rich man in Jesus’ story asked Abraham to send Lazarus back from the dead to warn his brothers. That would certainly be dramatic. But Abraham replied that those who didn’t listen to Moses (i.e., the Law) and the Prophets wouldn’t benefit from further miracles either. In fact, a man named Lazarus did rise from the dead, but the Jewish leaders didn’t repent at the sight. Rather, they made plans to send him back to the grave (John 12:9-11)!

No, God has given us all we need to grow in an understanding of His plan for us by giving us His Word, Jesus, who speaks to us through the Scriptures (“Ignorance of the Scriptures is ignorance of Christ” -St. Jerome), through Tradition (revelation Jesus handed on to His Apostles that was not written down–see II Thessalonians 2:14) and through the Magisterium (the teaching authority of the Church). These sources are our equivalent of Abraham’s recommendation of Moses and the Prophets (they include Moses and the Prophets, and transcend them). Studying the Catechism is a great way to start tapping into them! As we ask, seek and knock (Matthew 7:7-8), Jesus will be for us the Way, the Truth and the Life, that we might find our ultimate joy and fulfillment in His Father (John 14:6).

One side-effect of seriously seeking God’s answers in our lives is that we start to realize that our culture’s had more of an impact on us than we realized. We’ve grown up with assumptions about reality that are so basic that it never occurs to us to question them until we start to learn what the Church really teaches and to take those teachings seriously. A (Protestant) book title I ran across recently expresses the same idea with the phrase, Do Fish Know They’re Wet?. It’s just natural to mistake familiarity for truth.

One cultural assumption I’m trying to root out of my own life is the idea that people are to be used for my own purposes. I’m not sure anyone would ever say that outright, but it underlies so many basic assumptions about employment, advertising, interactions with clerks, even everyday interactions within families and among friends. We act in certain ways, ultimately not for the eternal benefit of the other person (that is, not out of love for them), but rather to get them to do what we want (which is the very root of lust!).

This underlying motive can be so subtle as to be undetectable unless we know to look for it. It feels so normal that we don’t even notice it. We may even mistake it for love! Yet our Holy Father tells us that a person must not be used, must never be treated as a means to an end. “The only proper and adequate way to relate [to a person] is love” (Karol Wojtyla, _Love and Responsibility_). Further, this utilitarian attitude toward people strikes at the very heart of our identity. As the Council Fathers of Vatican II said in our Holy Father’s favorite quote: “[since] man is the only creature on earth that God willed for its own sake, man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of self” (Gaudium et Spes n. 24). This “sincere giving of self” is love, the love Jesus said was the very basis of the Law and the Prophets (Matthew 22:37-40)! Here again we run into an erroneous cultural assumption. Love isn’t defined by warm fuzzy feelings. The Catechism, quoting St. Thomas Aquinas, defines love this way: “To love is to will the good of another” (Catechism, paragraph 1766). Erroneous cultural assumption number three is that “good” is defined by desires and/or pleasant emotions. Rather, when Aquinas talks about “good”, he’s referring to the eternal Reality of good as defined by God: the objective perfection appropriate to an object or person. The objective perfection of a person is holiness, is ultimately eternal life with God in Heaven.

Now that we’ve redefined our terms, let’s take another look at the Council’s statement: “man can fully discover his true self only in a sincere giving of self.” That means I only find my identity when I actively will (i.e., work for) holiness, Heaven, for another. If I use a person for my own ends, even if that person finds the experience pleasant, I’m not living up to my true self and I’m desecrating theirs. And I didn’t even know I was doing it!

To sum up, I’m trying to stop using people, to stop treating people as tools for my own benefit. I’m trying to live up to my identity as a person created in the image and likeness of God by learning to love, to give myself to others in a way that will help them grow in holiness and get to Heaven.

As you can see, untangling all these misconceptions that we don’t even notice and replacing them with God’s truth doesn’t just happen overnight with no effort of our part. We have to be prepared to let God uproot us and to participate in that uprooting process (always an unpleasant experience, even if we’re planted in a desert) so that He can replant us near the stream. As we saw above, it’s abundantly worth the effort!

May we stretch forth our roots to the Lord, the Fountain of Life, that we may flourish and be fruitful even in times of distress.

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