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Saturday, third week of Lent

March 5, 2005

Blessed Saturday!

Readings:
Hosea 6:1-6 (God wants repentance, not a payoff)
Psalm 51:3-21 “It is steadfast love, not sacrifice, that God desires”
+Luke 18:9-14 (the proud Pharisee vs. the humble sinner)

You know how we’ve been talking about flourishing and being fruitful? Well, God’s not looking for plastic fruit. Counterfeits are the devil’s work and only serve to further rupture the sacred order, to drive us farther away from Heaven. Yet, generation after generation, we still think we can pull the wool over God’s eyes.

“Quick, He’s coming! Hide the porn & pull out the puppy-dog eyes! ‘Oh God, we’re so sorry. We’ll never do it again–here, have a cow. You’ll forgive us, right?’ (psst…hey guys, keep the spit wads out of sight ‘till He leaves!)”

As I was describing this idea (of buttering up the Teacher to get out of trouble) to my husband (a teacher) last night, he got a very pained look on his face. He’s seen this sort of thing in action too many times! “And what gets me is that they’re so bad at it!”, he said. “I can see right through it.” If a human teacher, limited by time and space, can see right through this counterfeit, how much more obvious it must be to God, Who can read our hearts! I imagine that same pained look on God’s Face as He laments:

“What can I do with you, Ephraim?
What can I do with you, Judah?
Your piety is like a morning cloud,
like the dew that early passes away” (Hosea 6:4)

God doesn’t need our money (cows served the same sort of purpose in Biblical times) any more than a teacher needs his students’ homework. Are we to suppose that the One who fed 5,000 with five loaves and two fish (Matthew 14:17-21) would starve if we didn’t provide for Him?! In fact, if we try to substitute money for authentic inner conversion, God won’t accept it. “I will accept no bull from your house…for every beast of the forest is mine, the cattle on a thousand hills…If I were hungry, I would not tell you; for the world and all that is in it is Mine” (Psalm 50:9. 10. 12). He wouldn’t be a Teacher worthy of the name if He accepted money in place of conversion. A monetary donation that’s not integrated with a change of heart is like a homework assignment that’s been copied from someone who actually did the work. It’s just an attempt to placate the teacher without learning the material, pretending to value the sacred order when what we really want is our own comfort. To put it plainly, it’s cheating, which always hurts the cheater more than the teacher (although it’s plenty aggravating for the teacher too).

The need for inner conversion comes out in the Gospel too. If nobody looked too closely, it might appear as if the Pharisee was perfect, even by God’s standards. He fasted regularly, tithed on all he possessed & generally followed the rules. But he didn’t bother with inner conversion. He was too busy congratulating himself (to God, of course) over how much plastic fruit was tied to his branches The publican, on the other hand, looked pretty bad. Publicans traitorously, and usually dishonestly, collected taxes from their own people for the foreign invaders. His very identity was shameful. He didn’t bother hanging out plastic fruit. He came with real fruit, with humility, with a full awareness of his sin, prepared to change his ways (otherwise Jesus wouldn’t have said he went home justified).

Every sacrifice God recommends to us is for our benefit, homework our Teacher assigns to help His students master the material, to help us get to Heaven. Prayer, fasting and almsgiving are designed to free us from slavery to pride, physical desires and money, so that none of these will get in the way of our ultimate good, will prevent us from reaching perfection. This may seem a little counterintuitive. From an external perspective, one might think that depending on God (sounds weak), giving up food (won’t it harm health?) and giving away money (isn’t poverty a bad thing?) would take away from our perfection, but God’s saying just the opposite.

Here we need to take another look at our understanding of perfection. We tend think of perfection as being something tidy, strong, rich, beautiful, living up to our expectations. Yet Jesus’ crucifixion, the model of a perfect death, doesn’t fit those criteria at all! Sometimes perfection is rather messy. Sometimes our expectations are not in keeping with Reality. So what is perfection? “Per-” means “through, thoroughly, utterly, very”, and “-fect” comes from a word that means “to do” (_Random House Dictionary of the English Language, unabridged_). Perfection, then, means that something is thoroughly done. It’s complete in what it’s meant to be and has all the qualities it’s supposed to have for what it is. Thus, in order to become perfect, we have to know what and who we’re meant to be. Since God’s the One Who designed and created us, He’s the only One fully qualified to tell us–and that’s exactly what He’s trying to do! This is precisely why inner conversion is so important.

Prayer only sounds weak because we’ve lost track of the fact that our real strength comes from God (“I can do all things in Him who strengthens me” -Philippians 4:13, emphasis added). Giving up food sounds like it’ll diminish our perfection because we’ve forgotten that man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God (see Deuteronomy 8:3). We think of earthly poverty as a bad thing only because we’ve lost sight of the fact that we’re supposed to be storing up treasure in Heaven (not here), where neither moth nor rust consumes, nor thieves break in and steal (see Matthew 6:19-20).

If all we do is go through the motions of prayer, fasting and almsgiving with the idea of somehow satisfying an obligation, we will never learn the lessons I’ve just outlined. Even if we intellectually grasp them, they will not become part of the way we live. They won’t “fit us for Heaven”, as the Christmas carol says (“Away in A Manger”). Inner conversion is designed to help us integrate our inner convictions with our outward actions, to heal the split within our personhood, the rupture between body and soul, that sin has caused. Without inner conversion, there is no integration, there is no freedom. By themselves, the external sacrifices are about as nourishing as plastic fruit. “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God, rather than burnt offerings” (Hosea 6:6). If we love God, if we really get to know Him, we will see in Him who and what we are meant to be, for we are made in His image and likeness (Genesis 1:27).

May our lives bear witness to our change of heart.

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