As we prepare ourselves for the beginning of Lent next week on Ash Wednesday, I thought I would share with you my homily from this past Sunday from my pastoral visit to Christ the King and Pope John XXIII Parishes in Liverpool. In it, I reflect upon a possible roadmap for our coming Lenten journey.
The child was asked to clean his room before he could go out to play. He replied, “What’s the least I have to do?” He wondered if making the bed would count, or if the floor had to be clean, too. Did his clean clothes need to be put away, or only left in the laundry basket and tucked away in his closet? What about under his bed? Would that be checked, and would it have to be clean? The exasperated father and mother wondered when the child would want a clean room for his own sake and not simply because they wanted to tame the dusty bunnies.
Sound a bit too familiar? All I can picture is a scene from the comic strip “Zits” and the parents taking on their teenage son and the disaster zone that is his bedroom. Yet, believe it or not, this particular struggle is similar to what’s happening in this Sunday’s readings.
Our first reading from the Wisdom writings of Ben Sirach highlights the complete freedom of human beings in their relationship with God. Though God desires the good for us and all others, he does not compel us to do that which is right. Instead we are given the choice of whether to follow the commandments that lead to life or to reject them. In our Gospel reading from the evangelist Matthew, this choice is broken down even further. Are we interested in the bare minimum required from the laws laid forth in the Ten Commandments? If you and I get through life without committing murder, entering into adulterous relationships, or telling outright lies, have we lived up to our potential?
Brothers and sisters, are you squirming yet? I know I am! This Lord’s Day, to those people who want to be right with God but wonder what is the minimum required to achieve this relationship, Jesus has an answer — and it isn’t based on just squeaking on by or riding on someone else’s coattails.
In this Sunday’s Gospel, which is a continuation on the Sermon of the Mount and its focus on “blessedness,” Jesus takes certain aspects of the law of Moses and expands on them. Rather than command simply not to kill, Jesus says, do not grow angry. Rather than a command not to commit adultery, Jesus says not to look at another with lust. In other words, sisters and brothers, the Mosaic law is not simply the bare minimum we need to do to be right with God. Throughout the Gospels, when Jesus becomes upset with the religious leaders of his day, it is in large part because they observe, usually rather smugly, the letter of the law while forgetting that the purpose of the law was how to better love God and neighbor.
On the gentle, sloping land leading to the Sea of Galilee, Jesus was calling his listeners to lead lives of integrity where we follow not only the letter of the law but, more importantly, its spirit. Involving more than simply the words we say, this integrity calls us to a whole-hearted living where all that that we do and are reveals to whom we belong, who we are in God’s wisdom: his beloved sons and daughters. Brothers and sisters, for you and me to be a child of God, to be a Christian, is a way of life and not simply filling out a census form and checking off the boxes. Merely claiming the family name and fulfilling the minimum is not enough. Created in the image of God, true peace, fulfillment, and purpose can only be found by delving into the wonders of God’s law and the love, wisdom, and grace found therein.
I recognize that the standard Jesus sets before us may seem impossible to fulfill. How can I keep myself from growing angry, which is a natural human response to perceived injustice? What about those times I am on the road of life or [interstate highway] 690 and just want to loosen my tongue at the “fool” next to me with a few “choice” words like “raqa” meaning “imbecile, blockhead,” or others I shouldn’t use at all? And there are those moments where I may not so much want to pluck someone’s eye out but blacken it instead! Finally, what about those moments when I just don’t want to pray or to fast from dishonesty and my lustful thoughts or to be charitable to my neighbor?
Well, brothers and sisters, in another ten days we will enter the holy season of Lent where as ambassadors for Christ we will be invited to examine our lives, as well as to pray, to fast, and to do charitable works so that we will truly be salt for the earth and light for the world like we heard in last Sunday’s Gospel. Where have you and I let anger, lust, or dishonesty creep into our lives? What kind of rationalizations do we use to excuse ourselves from making Christ’s attitude our attitude? In a nutshell, in the coming Lenten season how can we all come closer to Christ?
Now, I will be the first to admit to you that my breaking open the Word of God this Lord’s Day leaves even me with a lot of pieces of life to consider, but I would like to offer you the following reflection as possible roadmap for our Lenten journey. It is titled “Secret of Success” by Clarence DeLoach, Jr:
A successful businessman once was asked for the secret of success by a student who interviewed him as part of his senior thesis. Thoughtfully, the businessman pondered the question. His reply summed up success in three words: “and then some.”
“You see,” he said, “I learned early in life that the difference between average people and the truly successful could be simply stated in those three words. Top people did what was expected, and then some!”
The truly successful were thoughtful of others; they were considerate and kind — and then some. They met their obligations and responsibilities fairly and squarely — and then some. They were good friends and helpful neighbors — and then some. They could be counted on in an emergency — and then some.
Jesus taught the and then some principle in the Sermon on the Mount. He tells us to go beyond what is expected! Go a little bit farther!
Let the words, “and then some,” serve as a tonic for your spirit. Practice your faith faithfully — and then some. Give generously of your time and of your resources — and then some. Greet those you meet with a smile — and then some. Be dependable, be a good friend — and then some. Do your best in all things and at all times — and then some. Be among the truly successful who go the extra mile, who make the world more livable and demonstrate true caring for the people around you — and then some.
Brothers and sisters, this Lord’s Day and in the coming Lenten season, let us pray that we may move beyond the world’s standard of just getting by and adopt God’s wisdom — and then some. Amen!