The readings in Lent are a constant drumbeat. They call us repeatedly to look at our lives and to repent of wrong doing. They constantly remind us of the mercy of God when we turn to him. Today is no different. The first reading calls us to cleanse ourselves of sins, and that we will be washed as white as snow. It also contains a warning: if we do not repent, if we “refuse and resist, the sword shall consume [us].” The psalmist reminds us that God does not care about empty sacrifices and recitation of his laws: he wants us to love him, he wants our words of praise to be true. To God, a pleasing sacrifice is one where we offer him true praise, heartfelt thanksgiving, and real repentance. “He that offers praise as a sacrifice glorifies me; and to him that god the right way I will show the salvation of God.”
This is what Jesus addresses in the Gospel today. The scribes and the Pharisees offer empty sacrifice, empty praise. They do not mean what they do and say. They are in it for their own glory. Jesus reminds us that we must be what we say and do. In another place, we are told to “let your yes mean yes and your no mean no.” This Gospel is calling us to similar behavior. We must love one another. If we truly love one another, we will be willing—glad even—to serve one another.
In the first reading today, Daniel is begging the Lord to have mercy on the Israelite people despite their many sins and failures. This plea is also in the today’s psalm, which asks the Lord not to “remember not against us the iniquities of the past; may your compassion quickly come to us, for we are brought very low.” This has been a common theme throughout the first week of Lent: recognizing our failures and asking God to forgive us.
Jesus reminds us in the Gospel that the Father is merciful, and that we are called to be merciful like him. “For the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you.” If we do not love, if we do not have mercy, then how can we expect God to have mercy on us? Many parables have a similar message, and we even find it in the Our Father, where we ask God to “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
These words can strike fear into our hearts, because they force us to recognize that our salvation depends on how we treat others—and we are terrible to other people sometimes! While we must do our best, our best isn’t enough. We know that for man it is impossible to enter Heaven. Only God can bring us to Heaven. So let us ask God to help us forgive and have mercy on others, so that we might grow in these virtues, so that at the end of our days when we meet God we will be greeted with a God’s superabundant mercy and love that we tried to give to others.
I am often tempted to think that life would be so much easier if God would just come down and tell me what to do. The Old Testament seems to be full of these stories, where God simply dictates commands, laws and prophecies to people like Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Elijah, Daniel, and Isaiah. If God was willing to tell these guys what to do, why won’t he just come and tell us what to do? Again, I am tempted to think that if God would work some spectacular miracle, and through some miraculous appearance witnessed by millions announced his will, the whole world would change.
But it wouldn’t.
After realizing this, I also remember something critical: God did tell us what he wants us to do. He didn’t just send a prophet to tell us, either. He sent Jesus Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity to tell us. God Himself came to Earth, and He told us what to do to have eternal life with Him. Not only did he tell us how to reach paradise, Jesus offered up his own life as a sacrifice to redeem all of us.
In today’s psalm, we pray, “Our soul waits for the Lord, who is our help and our shield. May your kindness, O Lord, be upon us who have put our hope in you.” We have put our hope in God, to lead us and to guide us. The Jewish people were waiting for the Lord to bring his mercy to them. They had no idea of the extent to which the Lord would go to shower his endless mercy upon us. His mercy delivers us from death, and preserves us always, fulfilling everything for which the psalmist prayed all the years ago—and for which we still pray today. God’s mercy has not dried up! He still showers it upon us every day.
The grace and mercy of God was “made manifest through the appearance of our savior Christ Jesus,” Paul says. Jesus saved us from death and opened the gates of Heaven for all who love God. Paul reminds us that our journey will be difficult—just as Abraham’s was. We, however, will not be alone. Paul reminds us that God will give us the strength that we need for the journey. This journey, to a holy life, is what we are called to do in this part of our lives. God calls us all to himself, and while we are alive on this earth and in this way, he desires us to live holy lives, to live our lives devoted to God and all those things which are good. We are called to love our neighbor, and to love our enemy. We are called to offer up our time, our talents, and our treasures not just to serve our God, not just to serve our neighbor, but to serve all people. We are called to be good stewards of this planet, good stewards of our countries, good stewards of our communities, and good stewards of our lives. Everything we have—even our body—is a gift for God himself!
these gifts, of which we are called to be stewards, pale in comparison to the greatest gift God gave humanity. Through his Passion, Death and Resurrection, Jesus Christ destroyed death. The effects of this are enormous! The Transfiguration in the Gospel today gives us a tiny glimpse into what this means. Our God is a God not of the dead, but of the living. The prophets of the Old Testament are alive with God, who in his glory shines as brightly as the sun!
Such an idea, such a sight can be frightening. Especially when a voice from Heaven accompanies it, says “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” But Jesus tells us not to be afraid.
Why should we not be afraid? Through our Baptism, we have become sons and daughters of God. God loves us, and desires that we join him in Heaven for eternity. This will happen if we follow the will of God and live holy lives. We can do this because God gives us the strength to endure hardship so that we may do what is just and right. When we trust God, as Abram did, he does not abandon us. Just look at what happened with Abram. God says to him
“I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you. All the communities of the earth shall find blessing in you.”
God eventually made the Israelite nation from Abraham’s descendants, which was great and very blessed, until they turned away from God. While Abraham’s name was still great, the people had ceased being a blessing. They did not go out and spread their blessings to the other communities of the earth. The Israelites had become a curse unto themselves. Then Jesus came. He took the curse onto himself and brought the Kingdom of God onto the earth in the Church. The Church, now, takes the place of the Israelite nation. Abraham is known as “our father in faith.” The Church has been blessed throughout the ages, because God has protected it from the assaults of the enemy. All the communities on earth have been blessed by the Church, because that is her mission: to be all things to all peoples, and to go forth to all the nations, spreading the Good News of Jesus Christ, and baptizing in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Today’s Readings: Gn 12:1-4a; Ps 33:4-5, 18-19, 20, 22; 2 Tim 1:8b-10; Mt 17:1-9
In the reading from Deuteronomy, the Israelite people promise to follow God’s laws and walk in his ways. God, in turn, promises to bless the people of Israel. The psalm reinforces this, saying “Blessed are they who follow the law of the Lord!” To follow God’s law is the easiest way to walk in his ways. But we cannot let the law become an end to itself—we must always remember that God is the measure, not mankind or a book of law.
Jesus reminds us of this in the Gospel today, where he tells us to “be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” We are called to go beyond the law, to be perfect. For example, Jesus tells us not simply to love God, but also to love our enemies. To be perfect is impossible for human beings, which is why we must constantly ask God for help. By submitting ourselves to the mercy of God, and praying for his assistance, we can be assured that he will eventually grant us the grace to be perfect if we do our best to follow in his ways.
The reading from Ezekiel today reminds us that we are responsible for our own actions, and that every action matters. The good person who commits a bad action is not “off the hook” because he’s a generally good person. That person still must answer for the bad act. Similarly, the bad person who committed a good act should be commended for having done a good thing. God wants us all to be good and to do good things. What we often forget is that the way to become a good person is to do good things—even small things—over and over again. The way to become a bad person is to repeatedly do bad things—even small ones—over and over again. There is a lot of truth in the saying “fake it until you make it.” If we do good things, even though they feel unnatural or like we are just faking it, eventually we become the type of person who does good things. This goes both ways, so we must always be careful to make sure we aren’t going to wrong direction.
Jesus in the Gospel today reminds us that the small things do matter. The little decisions which make up our day turn us into the person who we are. Maybe we do not kill, but we often can be angry. Jesus is telling us to resolve this anger. We should focus on the little things in our lives before they become big things.
We don’t need to do amazing feats of charity if we aren’t able to. It is in the little things of our day-to-day living where we become the person we desire to be. If we make poor decisions and do bad things, that eventually is reflected in our lives, often as pain, suffering and strife. If we make good decisions and do good things, that too is reflected in our lives, often as joy, peace and happiness.
Today’s first reading jumps into the middle of an episode where Esther is the only person who can save the entire Jewish population from being destroyed by the evil actions of Haman. To enter the king’s presence without an invitation, however, is a death sentence, even for Queen Esther. Our reading today contains Esther’s prayer for protection from God in this task she must undertake, and for the gift of persuasion so that her people may be saved. Esther is successful, and her people are spared.
The psalm and today’s Gospel both tell us that this is something we can expect from God. When we beg for God’s help, he will answer us. The psalmist writes that when we give thanks to God, when we worship and praise him with all our hearts, he will not fail to save us, nor will he forsake the work of his hands.
Matthew is even more clear in today’s Gospel passage. “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Jesus reminds us that parents give good things to their children. God, who is all good, considers every human being to be his child. If that is the case, what gift would God be unwilling to give us? Jesus uses classic Jewish logic in this passage saying, “how much more will your heavenly Father give good things to those who ask him.”
Let us remember today to praise and thank God with all our hearts, and to ask him for what we need. He will not fail to answer us.
I must admit, every time that I read from the book of Jonah, I chuckle a little bit. When the king of Ninevah hears the message of Jonah, he proclaims a fast and days of penance for not just the people, but also the animals of Ninevah. The cattle and the sheep, along with every man and woman, had to fast, be covered in ashes, and put on sack cloth. Can you imagine that scene? It’s kind of ridiculous!
But once I stop chuckling and step back, I realize that there is serious business going on in the book of Jonah. Even more so when you consider the words of today’s Gospel. Jesus tells the people that they will not receive a sign except the sign of Jonah. What is the sign of Jonah?
Let’s go back a little bit further in the book of Jonah. Jonah initially said no to God. He did not want to preach to Ninevah. Jonah was a Jew, and he did not want the Ninevites to be saved. He thought, as some people still think, that there is only so much salvation to go around. He did everything he could to avoid Ninevah, and he ended up getting swallowed by a whale. Now, I’ve never been swallowed by a whale, but I don’t think that’s an experience that a person survives. In fact, the prayer that Jonah prays in the belly of whale refers to him being in Sheol—the land of the dead. After three days, however, Jonah was spewed onto dry land, and he was brought back to life to complete the mission on which God had sent him.
Many people see this as the sign of Jonah. Jonah died and rose three days later, as Christ did. But this was not the sign of Jonah. But Jesus tells us that the sign of Jonah will be given to the people, so what was it and how was it fulfilled?
The sign of Jonah was the immediate repentance and conversion of heart of the Ninevites. We see this prophesy fulfilled in the establishment of the Church of Jesus Christ—the Catholic Church. Especially at Pentecost, the people were filled with the Holy Spirit. They repented of their sinful ways and committed themselves and their lives to following God. This sign continues even today, as the Church grows. Every time a new person is baptized, or repents and comes back to God, the sign of Jonah is realized. The sign of Jonah can be seen in the lasting presence of the Church in the world.
Through the Sacraments of the Church, we are given new life—as Jonah was given on the beach—in Baptism; God is made present to us through the Eucharist, our sins are forgiven in Confession, and in Confirmation we are strengthened for our mission. What is our mission? The same as Jonah’s mission: to go out to the world and preach the Good News of Salvation.
Isaiah today compares the Word of God to rain. It will not return to until it has made the ground fertile and fruitful. The Word of God—Jesus Christ—did come down to Earth. He watered the ground with the water and blood from his side, and he remained here until the Church could stand on its own. This prophesy from Isaiah was fulfilled in Jesus Christ.
But that is not all, one of the seeds that Jesus planted was a prayer. Specifically, the Lord’s Prayer. Today’s Gospel recounts Jesus teaching the Lord’s Prayer to the disciples. Afterwards, he reinforces a particularly challenging section of the prayer, saying: “If you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” Forgiveness is not an option. We must forgive. To do that, we must pray to God for assistance. Forgiveness, like salvation, is too difficult for men and women to do on their own—we must ask God for help.
God will always bring us this help. Today’s Psalm ends with amazing words of comfort: “When the just cry out, the Lord hears them, and from all their distress he rescues them. The Lord is close to the brokenhearted; and those who are crushed in spirit he saves.” We are all trying to be just in God’s sight. Whenever we ask for help to love God or neighbor, to forgive, God will not hold back. Even if we are broken and crushed, God can give us the strength that we need to carry on and—more importantly—to forgive.
In the first reading today, God’s law for dealing with other people is set forth for us. It ends with the statement: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.” The psalm, referring to this law, calls it “perfect” and “refreshing” to the soul. So many of the problems we have today would be solved if we kept this commandment in mind. Sometimes we forget that every person has their own unique set of circumstances and struggles that they confront every day. Despite all that, we are called to see this person as a beloved child of God. If we truly are able to see others as beloved children of God, we will treat them as Jesus teaches us in the beatitudes, and as he reminds us in the Gospel today. We will give care and comfort to those who need it.
If we truly love someone, we care for them enough to care for the people in their lives. We get to know them, and often to develop our own relationships with these people in the lives of those we love. A similar dynamic must be present in our relationship with God. If we truly love God, then we must care about the physical and spiritual well-being of those who God loves. This, however, is the challenge, because God loves every person. If we hate another person, we are hating one of God’s beloved children. Even worse, we are in a way hating God, because he dwells within each and every human being.
The Gospel ends by reminding us that we will be judged at the end of all things. We will be judged on our ability to love. If we truly loved God and neighbor, we will enter into the kingdom. If not, we will suffer eternal punishment. Love can be challenging. It doesn’t mean that we always agree with the other or even necessarily like them very much. It might mean that we have to offer correction to those who have lost their way, or do other things that we don’t particularly enjoy doing. But we are called to love.
It is interesting how Genesis describes the fall of mankind. It seems that the woman is the first person to sin. A feminist might think that this is evidence that the Bible (and, by extension, the Church) is anti-woman, misogynist, or only finds value in men. That is, however, not the case. One of the most fascinating parts of this reading from Genesis, for me at least, is towards the end, where it says “and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her.”
If her husband is with her, why is Eve facing the evil one alone? Original sin is just as much of failure on the part of the husband—of Adam. It is a husband’s duty to protect his wife—his beloved—not just from physical threats, but also from any other kind of danger: mental and spiritual included. Both Adam and Eve sinned, and had either of them responded to temptation correctly this would never have happened.
The story of how sin entered the world is much more complex than a simple surface reading. There are many things that went wrong in the Genesis account. As I mentioned, the man did nothing to protect his wife from the evil one. A far more grievous mistake was when the woman engaged the serpent in conversation. Angels, even fallen angels, are far more intelligent than any human being. We cannot hope to win a battle of wits with an angel or a demon. Another problem is that the serpent was able to make an evil thing appear to be good; however, we know that certain things are evil. Directly contradicting a command of God is never going to turn out well. Adam and Eve both knew that, but they thought that by doing something evil—disobeying God—they would end up doing good—gaining knowledge. (One could observe that the Nazis employed a similar tactic by inflicting great evil on concentration camp victims in order to gain medical knowledge of the human body.) A final problem in Adam and Eve’s response was that they started to make room in their mind for the evil act. This is due to the previous to problems mentioned, because once you accept doing something as possible, it begins to occupy space in your mind. If they had simply cut off conversation with the serpent, or not considered disobeying God, they never would have considered that the tree was “good for food, pleasing to the eyes, and desirable for gaining wisdom.”
The Gospel today parallels the Genesis account, but shows what happens when one responds correctly to temptation. First, Jesus is in the desert—not a garden. He can see the evil coming toward him and is not distracted by many things. The first temptation of the devil is for Jesus to turn stones into bread. Jesus is likely hungry after fasting for 40 days. Jesus responds by quoting Scripture: “one does not live on bread alone, but on every work that comes forth from the mouth of God.” He squarely places his confidence in his Father to protect him. The devil brings Jesus to the parapet, and tempts his pride, telling him that is he jumps the angels will catch him. He even quotes Scripture (Psalm 91) himself! This shows us that Scripture can be taken out of context and misused by enemies of God. Jesus replies quoting Deuteronomy: “You shall not put the Lord, your God, to the test.” He again does not engage the devil, saying only that he will not be tested. Finally, the devil takes Jesus to a high mountain, and tempts him to with control of all the kingdoms of the world. This is an evil thing to do, but of which good may come. If Jesus were in control, he could do much good! But Jesus again tells the devil to leave him, reminding him that only God is to be worshiped.
All of the mistakes in Genesis are overcome by Jesus: he trusts in the Father to protect him, he never engages the devil in a game of reason—only telling him to be gone and cease tempting him, he never mistook an evil act for good, and he never fell prey to making room in his mind for the temptations. In doing this, Jesus defeated the devil.
So let us learn from Jesus. When tempted, we should resort to trust in God for protection. We should remember good passages from scripture or simple, short prayers to strengthen us when we are in trouble, such as “Jesus I trust in you.” We should not consider the temptation, but focus on something else, such as God’s mercy, the image of Jesus on the Crucifix, or some work of art like the Pieta. Worship of God at Mass, Confession, and prayer will save us from temptation, so let us use all these means in the spiritual combat of Lent.
As Paul says, “through the disobedience of one man the many were made sinners, so, through the obedience of the one, the many will be made righteous.” Let us all strive to unify ourselves with Christ, and be one of the righteous.
Today’s Readings: Gn 2:7-9; 3:1-7; Ps 51:3-4, 5-6, 12-13, 17; Rom 5:12-19; Mt 4:1-11