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Saturday, Third Week of Lent

March 17, 2007

Blessed St. Patrick’s Day! (look for his story in the “Saints of Lent” category)

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), 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, is
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 counter-intuitive. 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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