The Dominican friar, Blessed Humbert of Romans O.P. once said "First the bow is bent in study, then the arrow is released in preaching..." These are the sermons and reflections of fr. Lawrence Lew O.P., a Friar Preacher (Dominican), illustrated with some of his photographs.
Today hidden things are being revealed through parables. The prophet Jeremiah enacts a parable which shows us the hidden corruption of sin, while Christ tells a parable which speaks of the hidden transformative activity of grace. And both is at work in the human person.
So, in the First Reading the waistcloth stands for God’s people, and so, it represents you and me, who are called into a very intimate union with God through baptism. Just as in the baptismal liturgy a white garment is used as a symbol of one’s Christian dignity, so here a white linen loincloth is that symbol. But that cloth is hidden in a cleft of the rock, where the waters of the Euphrates river run over it. The Euphrates represents Babylon, a symbol of foreign power, idolatry, and sin. And so, hidden and unseen, sin, which is foreign to God, corrupts the human person, weakens our moral character.
This corruption does not come from the actual commissions of sins, as such, but something more subtle, and thus, hidden. It refers, I think, to an attachment to sin. St Francis de Sales explains: “weak and lukewarm penitents… would be very happy if they could sin without being damned; they speak of sin as something regretfully lost, and of sinners as though theirs were the happier lot”. This attachment to sin, St Francis de Sales says, “not only places you in danger of relapsing but is a constant source of weakness and discouragement, preventing you from doing good readily, diligently and frequently”.
I think we can all recognize this attachment to sin; repeated confessions where there is no firm purpose of amendment because we don’t really hate our sins. Rather, we are still hidden in the cleft of the rock, where the waters of the Euphrates run over us and slowly render us weak, discouraged and ultimately “spoiled” (Jer 13:7). Hence, we need to be removed from all attachment to our sins, and this is only possible if we see its disasterous effects, and why particular sinful acts are so harmful. Jeremiah’s actions, then, are meant to show us the effects of sin, rendering one “good for nothing” (Jer 13:7).
On the contrary, that which renders us good is God’s grace. As we said in our Collect, without God, “nothing has firm foundation, nothing is holy”. So, we stand in absolute need of him, utterly dependent on his grace to accomplish any good. As such, God brings us to an awareness of our sins in order to spoil our pride (cf Jer 13:9), and so, to turn us back to him in humility so that we learn to cling to him, and to co-operate with his grace.
For God’s grace is not completely absent, even in the heart of sinners. His grace goes before us to move us to repentance, so that, having been forgiven, we can become holy, sanctified by grace. This grace at work in us, moving us to repentance and then to holiness, is also hidden and unseen, like leaven hidden in the flour (cf Mt 13:33). But whereas our hidden attachment to sin corrupts, the grace hidden in us, if we co-operate with it, transforms us for the good. Like yeast in the dough grace causes us to rise up to a new life with Christ who is the Bread of Life. This truth is being enacted now in the Eucharist for we receive here God’s grace, and we pray that we will be so open to the workings of God’s grace that, as we say in the Offertory Prayer, the Eucharist will “sanctify our present way of life and lead us to eternal gladness”.
Observing the young mothers around here lately, as young women become mums, I reckon that not only do their wombs expand during their pregnancy but also their hearts. The heart swells with love to make room for another, and from the moment a relationship is formed with the little person in her womb, the mother stores up in her heart a treasury of memories, of ponderings, of love for her child.
This is the image given us in Scripture of the Virgin Mother: “Mary kept all these things in her heart” (Lk 2:51b). But Our Lady’s ponderings from the moment the angel Gabriel appeared to her must have gone beyond what every mother does because the Son in her womb is God incarnate; Love become flesh. And thus, Mary ponders the mystery of the Incarnation in her heart, she contemplates the wonder and depth of God’s love for humankind. So, Mary keeps in her heart the mystery of divine love, and so it is expanded by grace to become like her divine Son’s, a heart full of love for all. For Mary becomes the new Eve, the Mother of the Church.
But the heart that loves is, therefore, the heart that suffers. So Mary’s immaculate heart, which swells to accommodate all people, suffers greatly. As Simeon told her, “a sword will piece through your own soul also” (Lk 2:35). For, as all mothers do, Mary suffers to see harm befall her Child, as when she stood by the Cross of Jesus. And as Mother of mothers, Mary keeps and holds in her heart, too, the silent grief and suffering of so many mothers. Above all, though, as Mother of all humanity, Mary stands by us sinners, and she weeps to see Mankind crucified by sin.
Hence today’s first reading tells of the sorrows of the virgin daughter of Zion. Seeing the devastation of Jerusalem because of its sins, the daughter of Jerusalem weeps. Our Lady is that virgin daughter of Zion who weeps for Mankind, for all her children because she, the Immaculate One, sees all the more clearly the devastation to human souls and to societies that is caused by sin. For the Immaculate Mother – who knows so well the call of humanity to live in intimate friendship with God, who experiences the joy of sanctifying grace and freedom from sin from the moment of her conception – she recognizes as only such a human person can, the sorrow and pain that results from grave sin, i.e., the deprivation of sanctifying grace and life and love. We often do not see how sin harms us personally, but the Virgin Mother does, and her immaculate heart feels the pain and sorrow we inflict on ourselves by sinning. Thus she weeps for us. But she also intercedes for us. “Pray for us sinners”, we say again and again, and we know she does, as every mother does, praying for her children, hoping for our salvation, pointing us always to her Son, our only Saviour.
As she once sought the child Jesus and found him, so she prays that all will find Jesus too. For he alone brings joy to the human heart. This hope and prayer, Mary treasures in her immaculate heart. So, by our Mother’s loving intercession, may this come to be. Amen.
From next Friday, after Ascension Thursday, the short responsory at Vespers becomes rather short indeed. In three words, it simply says: “Spiritus Paraclitus, alleluia”. This caught my attention many years ago, when I used to pray the Office alone in Latin, because that phrase uses the three ancient Liturgical languages of the Church: Latin, Greek, and Hebrew. Because, ‘alleluia’, of course is the Hebrew word meaning ‘Praise God’, and the word ‘Paraclitus’ is just a paraphrase of the Greek word used in today’s Gospel to describe the Holy Spirit.
Jesus says: “I will pray the Father, and he will give you allon parákleton" (Jn 14:16), which is translated here as ‘another Counselor’. In other places, it will read as ‘another Advocate’ or helper, or also ‘another Comforter’. So, I think this word, parakletos, which only occurs in John’s Gospel merits further exploration.
The word is really a compound of the prefix para, meaning ‘beside, next to, side-by-side’, and the verb kaleo, meaning ‘I call’. So, the Holy Spirit is one who is called to stand by our side. The English translations are derived from this. The Spirit is one who is called to come alongside us to help us. Think of how you might be carrying a heavy burden and need someone to help you with it, or even to hold the door open to make passage easier. For this is who God is. He is one whom we can call upon to help and strengthen us, to ease our burdens and our way forward in life. Likewise, the Spirit is called alongside us to bring us comfort. Think of how we might lean on the shoulder of a friend, or of how we put our arms around someone to comfort them in sorrow. For this, too, is who God is – our friend, our Mother and Father, our intimate Lover who comforts us in times of sadness, but also whom we can lean and rely on.
However, the translation we often find carries a more technical meaning. Whether we use ‘Counselor’ or ‘Advocate’ the language is of the courtroom. The Spirit, then, is the one we call to stand beside us when we are in the dock, charged with sins, and we stand before the Judgement Seat of God. In the Bible, the Devil is called the Accuser, or in Greek, diabolos. Literally, the one who throws things across or throws apart. The Devil hurls accusations at us; he is the Prosecutor, and we stand accused. But when we are accused because we have sinned, and we stand guilty, who will defend us, who will come to our side? Spiritus Paraclitus, alleluia. The Spirit is our Advocate, our Counsel, whom we can call upon to come and defend us.
Often we feel so burdened by our sins and guilt, and the great lie is that it is God who accuses us; hence, many resent him. But in fact it is the Devil who is the Accuser. He tells us we are hypocrites, unworthy, useless sinners, and so on. Every feeling of inadequacy, every accusation that tears us apart and humiliates us come from him, the Father of Lies. What are we to do?
If you stand accused, call your defence lawyer! Come, Holy Spirit! Call the Advocate, the Counsellor, the Comforter. Call upon the Holy Spirit to come and stand beside you. As St Paul says: “the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words” (Rom 8:26). Often we Catholics will run to the saints and especially Our Lady for help. And this is well and good; we should ask them to intercede for us. But let us not neglect the parakletos who we should call alongside us first as our Helper and Comforter.
And how the Spirit helps and defends us is with the Truth. The Holy Spirit, Jesus tells us, is the “Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:17) who will “teach us all things” and remind us of all Jesus told us (cfd Jn 14:26). What this means is that the Spirit comes to show us the truth of who we are as sinners. But at the same time he reminds of the truth of who we are as children of God, redeemed by Jesus Christ and healed by his grace, even while we were still sinners (cf Rom 5:8). The Spirit of truth reminds us that we are loved by God, and so, stirs up in us a love of God and of his wise commandments. For God’s commandments, and the keeping of them, are a mark, a sign to all, that we are loved by God and we belong to him. We are his children, so the Accuser cannot get to us – indeed, he has nothing to hold against us.
Hence St Paul says: “If God is for us, who is against us?… Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies; who is to condemn?” (Rom 8:31, 33). For, again, it is not God who condemns us. It is the Devil who does, and we help him when we choose other than to follow God’s wise commands, when we fall for the Devil’s lies. God, on the other hand, stands to defend us, to raise us up, to help us with his powerful grace.
Indeed, we should notice that Jesus says that the Father will send the Spirit as anotherparakletos. Who, then, is the first Paraclete? St John says in his first letter: “My little children, I am writing this to you so that you may not sin; but if any one does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous” (1 Jn 2:1). And the Greek word translated as ‘advocate’, of course, is parakletos. Christ is our advocate because, as St Peter says today, “Christ… died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God” (1 Pt 4:18).
Through his incarnation, God came alongside sinful humanity. For generations the people of God had called out for salvation, and at last the One they had called out to, God himself, came alongside as Man. In Jesus Christ, the parakletos, comes and stands alongside us as Emmanuel, God-with-us, and he suffers with us, dies with us, and is buried with us. This is the full implication of God being our parakletos: he the righteous one died for the sins of us, the unrighteous ones. But Jesus rose from the dead and he lives. And as he says: “Because I live, you will live also” (Jn 14:19b). Thus, we did stand accused but because of Christ, our parakletos, we have been sentenced to a life of glory, to be alongside God in heaven.
For that is where we Christians belong, here in this life, and eternally. For we, through Baptism into Christ and receiving the Spirit in Confirmation (cf Acts 8:14-17), are also parakletos. We’ve been called alongside; called to be next to, side-by-side, abiding with our merciful and loving God now and for ever.
The serpent had tempted Adam and Eve to doubt God’s goodness and wisdom, and so, led to Man’s downfall. Refusing to depend on God, Man is cast out of the Garden and has to learn to fend for himself in the wilderness. But God goes in search of them, sending Moses to lead them out of the wilderness and back into a Land, a garden flowing with milk and honey. But in the wilderness Israel has to learn again to trust in God and his goodness and Providence. Adam and Eve had failed to do this when they bit into the fruit at the serpent’s bidding. So, now, when Israel fails again to trust God and they grumble against him, they feel the bite of their sin and unbelief. And this bite is fittingly administered by serpents, the very creature that first tempted Mankind into sin.
This is fitting because it reminds us that sin carries in itself our own punishment. For sin causes the separation of ourselves from God’s friendship, and brings a kind of disorder to one’s emotional life and one’s use of reason so that we find it hard to think clearly and rationally and to choose to do what we reason to be good and true. So, the disordered struggle to live the good life within ourselves and with others is the punishment of sin; we feel the fiery serpent’s bite which leads, ultimately, to death. Hence St Thomas says, we can “call sin punishment by reason of what sin causes, as Augustine says that a disordered soul is its own punishment”.
Notice that it is not so much that God punishes the sinner, but rather that our freely-chosen sinful acts, which reject the Creator’s wisdom and goodness, cause a state of disorder and moral confusion in Man. Hence, sinful acts are punitive because they deprive us of the harmony and peace and order for which we long. Thus we remain outside the Garden and in the wilderness. So, if God were to really want to punish us, he would leave us unrepentant, would abandon us to our sinful ways, and leave us without any help or guidance, nor call us to repentance. This state of being left to remain in unrepented sin, to “die in your sins” (Jn 8:24) as Jesus says today, is what Scripture refers to as “the wrath of God”.
So, when the people of Israel call for God not to be angry, they are calling for him to save them from the bite of sin and its poison. Thus, God’s mercy towards Israel is shown when he moves them by his grace to repent, and when he provides a remedy for their sin, an antidote. He calls them to look at the serpent, which is to say, to recognize their sins so as to repent of them. And as God once provided the solution for Israel and had mercy on them, so God has now provided for all of humanity. Jesus is the one and only Solution to humanity’s fundamental problem of sin.
Thus we need to look to him and, as he says to the Jews, believe that “I am He” (Jn 8:24). For we must learn what Adam and Eve and the grumbling Israelites failed to learn, namely to trust in God’s goodness, to believe that he is faithful to his Word, and provides the Solution.
So, when Good Friday comes and Christ is lifted up, let us look with faith at the antidote. In the Crucified One we see the destruction and violence wrought by sin, we see how Mankind is disfigured, beaten up, left dying because of sin. For thus you and I had been punished by our own sins. But at the same time we see too, on the Cross, our God of mercy and love who comes for our sake and for our salvation to bear the punishment of all Man’s sins – our sins – in his own body. Thus the Lamb of God takes away the sins of the world.
His Body, risen and glorified, defeating sin and death, thus becomes the medicine for our souls. In the Eucharist we come with faith to receive this Body, the true fruit of the Cross, the Tree of Life. We doubt no longer but taste and see that the Lord is good. In faith we receive the fruit of Mary’s womb, who saves us from the effects of that poisonous fruit of the Tree that Eve had eaten in Eden. And thus, we are restored to Paradise, brought out of the wilderness into the heavenly Promised Land.
Passiontide, the time when we turn our minds to Christ’s final weeks, begins on Sunday, and so the mood in the Gospels has been changing; they are menacing. For we heard earlier this week that the Jews wanted to kill Jesus, and this is heightened today: “Is not this the man whom they seek to kill?” (Jn 7:25). Today’s first reading gives us an insight into the real motivations behind this murderous hatred for Christ. It is because he is the Truth, and he shines the light of truth on Man’s sinful hearts.
Often people kill off God in their lives, and they can use the state of the Church, or the behaviour of the clergy, or the popular claim of some scientist or writer or even an entertainer as the purported reason to do this. And perhaps they believe at the time that this is the reason. But in fact, the true reason is a moral reason. For God; Jesus; his Gospel; Christ’s Church “is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions; he reproaches us for sins against the law, and accuses us of sins against our training. He professes to have knowledge of God… He became to us a reproof of our thoughts; the very sight of him is a burden to us” (Wis 2:12-15).
And so, just as Adam and Eve after their sin hide their faces from God, for “the very sight of him is a burden”, so when we sin we too hide our faces from God. Or rather, we hide God’s face from ourselves because we cannot bear the look of Truth. For our sins reveal the truth about who we are and what we really desire; it’s an inconvenient truth for us sinners. For as Rowan Williams says, sin is “the state of revolt against truth”.
So, we find that many would kill God off: saying God does not exist, or that his Church has no authority to teach in this or that arena, or that there is no such thing as absolute Truth and certainly not in matters of spirituality and religion. Because Truth, if we admit it exists, is such that he would possess us, convert us, change us. And this requires humility. As Pope Francis said, “truth leads to humility, since believers know that, rather than ourselves possessing truth, it is truth which embraces and possesses us” (Lumen Fidei, 34).
The journey of Lent is a journey from falsehood to the Truth. Hence, it is a journey towards the Cross. Those who sought to kill Jesus do so because, as Wisdom says, “Let us see if his words are true and let us test what will happen at the end of his life” (2:17). And these words are ironic. Because Truth is being put to the test to see if it is true. So, they crucify Jesus, and thus, on the Cross, he shows that his words are true. As Rowan Williams says: “Jesus, hanging on the cross, says to us, ‘This is what your untruth means”; we would kill Truth.
But what else happens on the Cross? Scruton says: “In the moment of sacrifice people come face to face with God”. So, at the end of his life, Jesus the innocent Victim of our sins shows that God is Love. And the one from whom we had hidden our faces is revealed to us. We see the truth. But not just the truth of Man’s sinfulness but the truth of God’s nature. God is mercy and love, long-suffering in patience and compassion, ever-ready to forgive. God is with us, sinful humanity.
And this truth, if we dare to see it, if we dare to allow it to embrace and possess us, will redeem us and save us from all our untruth, from our sinful revolt against Truth. Thus we enter into Passiontide and prepare for the new life that Easter promises.
Jesus reveals Satan’s tactics to us today. The strategy of demons, that is, of those fallen angels who have permanently rebelled against God, is to divide and conquer. For they know, as Jesus affirms, that “every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste” (Lk 11:17). Hence, the Devil is called in Greek diabolos, which comes from the verb diaballo, meaning to divide, to cause confusion, and so, to lie. So, the demons divide and conquer us by lying, as we saw the Serpent do to Eve and Adam. And by sowing confusion and doubt concerning God’s authority and goodness and wisdom, again, as the Serpent did in Eden.
Only yesterday, we heard how Moses extolled the wisdom and goodness of God revealed in his Law. As such, the Law was a mark of God’s closeness and intimacy to his people, of his loving care for Israel. And yet, as Jeremiah says today, Israel repeatedly doubted the wisdom and goodness of God’s Law, and instead, they “walked in their own counsels… and went backward and not forward” (Jer 7:24). The temptation, then, for each of us to turn from God and distrust him is ever present because the demons are ever watchful to do this, to deceive, to divide us, and so to conquer.
Hence, so many things – a myriad temptations – distract and divide us; our attention is scattered and unfocussed, and our desires are jumbled and confused. As Pope Francis said in Lumen Fidei, “Those who choose not to put their trust in God must hear the din of countless idols crying out: ‘Put your trust in me!’” (§13). Any good thing, any pleasure, any person becomes an idol if it is preferred over God; if we believe that they promise a happiness, a satisfaction, a peace that can, ultimately, only be found in God. As Pope Benedict said to young Catholics in Scotland in 2010: “There are many temptations placed before you every day - drugs, money, sex, pornography, alcohol - which the world tells you will bring you happiness, yet these things are destructive and divisive”. Hence, these temptations divide us, and conquers us, so that the heart is turned away from God, and becomes stubborn and evil, as Jeremiah says (cf. 7:24).
Which is why we need this season of grace, this time of Lent, to recollect ourselves. Or rather, we need Jesus to gather that which is scattered (cf Lk 11:23). So, Pope Benedict said: “There is only one thing which lasts: the love of Jesus Christ personally for each one of you. Search for him, know him and love him, and he will set you free from slavery to the glittering but superficial existence frequently proposed by today’s society”.
During Lent, then, we search for Christ. We want to know him better and love him more, so as to be gathered with him in a pure and undivided, un-scattered, heart. How? The Catechism, citing St Augustine, says: “‘Pure in heart’ refers to those who have attuned their intellects and wills to the demands of God’s holiness, chiefly in three areas: charity; chastity or sexual rectitude; love of truth and orthodoxy of faith. There is a connection between purity of heart, of body, and of faith: The faithful must believe the articles of the Creed “so that by believing they may obey God, by obeying may live well, by living well may purify their hearts, and with pure hearts may understand what they believe.” (CCC 2518).
As those who are preparing for baptism at Easter typically receive the Creed in this week of Lent it is fitting that we, the Baptised, are reminded of this too so that we may be gathered into the unity of Christ and his Mystical Body the Church.
At last night’s Student Mass, we celebrated the first of three Scrutinies for the two women, called the Elect, who will be baptized during this year’s Easter Vigil. On that night, through the simple act of washing with water, they shall receive what Naaman’s healing anticipates: they will be healed from the leprosy of sin, and become newborn children of God.
In preparation for this, the Church calls them to undergo these solemn rites of Scrutiny. But it is not the Church that scrutinizes them, but rather, the Elect themselves search their hearts with the help of the Holy Spirit. As the liturgical books explain, these rites of “self-searching… are meant to uncover, then heal all that is weak, defective, or sinful in the hearts of the elect; to bring out, then strengthen all that is upright, strong and good”. In this way, the Elect bring to light – Christ’s light – the truth of who they are so that God’s grace can heal what is broken, and perfect what is good.
All of us, in fact, can benefit during Lent from this kind of self-searching. Hence, the Church invites us every Lent to scrutinize our lives and examine our consciences; to bring ourselves to stand in Christ’s light. With his help, we scrutinize our lives and and examine “the areas of our lives where we are tempted, or seriously sin”; how we may have rejected God’s grace. For our sins reveal to us what we truly desire, what is wounded in our lives, and thus, what needs healing. Our sins, as such, have a ‘prophetic’ role, we might say, because they speak the truth about who we really are, and what we really want and love as sinners. And this truth, hard though it is to hear, is necessary to uncover and face up to if we’re to be healed by God’s grace.
So, in the Gospel, Jesus speaks the truth, the plain facts, about the people of Israel, and how they had behaved in the past. He uncovers the sins of Israel to the people of Nazareth. But they react so badly to the facts! They just cannot deal with the truth, and so, they refuse to hear it but seek to drive Jesus out and even kill him; they want to kill Truth. Let it not be so with us.
The rites of Scrutiny and the season of Lent thus invite all of us to prepare for Easter by examining our consciences, looking honestly at our sins and our choices in life, and then seeking the courage and grace to change and to grow in virtue. Therefore, let us pray again, as we did last night, “that the Holy Spirit, who searches every heart, may help [us] to overcome [our] weakness through his power”.
It’s sometimes said that God draws straight with crooked lines. But this suggests that God directly wills evil whereas in fact God doesn’t desire crookedness or will evil as such. Rather, as St Thomas says, “God allows evils to happen in order to bring about a greater good”. God draws straight out of our crooked lines; it is he who straightens what we make crooked; God’s grace actualizes the fullest potential for the good from Man’s evil acts which are lacking in good.
Hence, although Joseph’s brothers deal with him cruelly and sinfully, God, in his Providence, turns the wicked act of the brothers to a greater good. For as the story unfolds, Joseph would eventually become the instrument of salvation for God’s people. Despite being falsely accused and imprisoned, Joseph remains faithful to God and steadfast in hope. Thus, God is able to use Joseph to save his father, Jacob, and his brothers from starvation when the famine comes. We thus see God drawing straight out of the crooked ways of the brothers.
The figure of Joseph, and his role as a kind of saviour for Israel anticipates the person of Christ, who is also falsely accused and enters into the pit of death, but who rises from it to be our Saviour. For all humanity, who are Christ’s brothers and sisters, are saved from the starvation and death that is sin through the faithfulness and obedience of Jesus Christ. In the saving work of Christ we see most clearly the mystery of God’s Providence and goodness at work, bringing a greater good, indeed, the greatest good, from our evil. As the Exsultet puts it on Easter night: “O happy fault that earned so great, so glorious a Redeemer!”
We are sometimes left wondering and speechless in the face of evil done and suffered. The patriarch Joseph, we note in today’s reading, is silent as his brothers’ crooked ways are inflicted on him. And yet, Joseph’s life reminds us that God is working out his good purposes, drawing straight out of the crooked. Moreover, as the Cross shows us, from which our Lord hangs in silence too, God will vindicate the just. For God’s grace, we believe, is at work to bring a greater good out of the evil that Man does and endures. Hence the 14th-century English mystic, Julian of Norwich said: “Grace transforms our failings full of dread into abundant, endless comfort… our failings full of shame into a noble, glorious rising… our dying full of sorrow into holy, blissful life”.
So, let us imitate the faith and steadfast hope of Joseph, and draw strength from Christ, confident that God is at work in our world and in our lives to bring about our greatest good. Hence, we said in today’s Entrance Antiphon: “In you, O Lord, I put my trust, let me never be put to shame… for you indeed are my refuge”.
In medieval images of the Temptation of Christ, the Tempter is often depicted as a monk. But if we look closely, beneath his habit are the clawed feet of the Devil. What is the meaning of this? The artist, I think, wants to express the fact that every temptation appears good and wise, reasonable and just, and therefore, desireable to Mankind. Hence George Bernard Shaw once said: “I never resist temptation, because I have found that things that are bad for me do not tempt me”. This is precisely the point. Only those things that seem good and right and justifiable to us can tempt us. If they did not appear good and attractive we would not even begin to think of choosing them. Hence, the Genesis account we’ve just heard, which has such insight into the psychology of sin and temptation, makes this observation: Eve “saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired" (Gen 3:6).
However, as St Thomas says: “the good in view of which one acts is not always a true good [but] sometimes an apparent good”. For we can become so focussed on a particular good, so obsessed with getting what we desire that we lack perspective about the true good. It is as though we have had blinkers put on us so that we do not see the bigger picture. Every sin, therefore, involves a certain myopia because we can only see the transient good immediately in front of us but not the broader vision of the good as God knows it.
Thus every sin also involves a certain forgetfulness of God’s goodness and love. In the Genesis account, it is as though Eve forgets that God has loved her into being from nothing and has given her all that is. Instead, when prompted by the Tempter, she doubts God’s goodness and questions his Word, seeing God as a kind of restriction on her human freedom. But God is the source of all our being including our freedom; he could never be a threat to Man’s good but is, in fact, our highest Good and the Giver of every good gift.
But the tragedy of sin is that we forget this, and so we choose lesser, transient, material goods. Hence, Eve is so overcome by her desire for the good she sees in the fruit of the tree that she reaches out for it in spite of what God had said. In doing so, we’re shown by the Genesis account that every sin, at some level, involves a preference for my own vision of the good over and above God’s vision. Every sinful act, effectively says that we know better than God what is good for us and what makes us truly happy; we’d rather trust ourselves and put our faith in Man’s reasoning, Man’s knowledge than in God and his Word.
And, so, temptation leads us to choose some good, but only a partial good. We’re led to some truth, but only a half-truth. For this is the Tempter’s tactic – temptations come to us under the guise of a monk, and so, they appear wise or good. Hence Soloviev said: “Such temptations are not produced by a simple or direct denial of truth: a naked lie can be attractive, yet is tempting only in hell and not in the world of humanity. Here it is required to cover it with something attractive, to connect it to something true in order to captivate” us.
Therefore, when the Devil appears to Christ, he tempts him by appealing to something attractive, namely, bread to sate his physical hunger. Then, he appeals to something true: Jesus is the Son of God, so why not reveal his true glory to all people, lifted up by God’s angels before all in the Temple? And finally, he appeals to some apparent good, which is that Jesus should be given the whole world. Would it not be good for all peoples to be subject to Christ?
But as we can see, each of these goods are superficial. For as Jesus himself says: “What will it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and forfeits his life?” (Mt 16:26). Moreover, the Devil tempts Jesus with a way to carry out his mission which would have avoided the Cross. In a similar way, Adam and Eve are tempted to attain divinity, to snatch at it, without the Cross, without having to learn to Love sacrificially. But whereas our first parents were deceived by the Devil, Jesus is not. For despite the attractiveness of the Devil’s temptations, Jesus rejects them because, ultimately, he chooses the true good which comes from God alone. He places his trust in God’s Word, and he remembers God’s unfailing goodness and love. Hence in his reply to the Devil we see Jesus’ faith in God’s goodness, his embrace of God’s wise plan, and his placing of himself at God’s service. Thus, Jesus chooses the Cross because, as St Paul says, it reveals the “power of God and the wisdom of God” (1 Cor 1:24).
Therefore, like Eve, Jesus sees that “the tree was to be desired”, but not the tree in the centre of Eden, but the Tree of the Cross on the summit of Calvary; the centre of the world. This is the Tree of Life that Jesus desired: it delighted his eyes and he saw that it was good because from it came salvation for the whole world. From the Cross, God the Father revealed the depths of his love for all humanity in the person of his Son. And from the Cross, humanity is taught to “be like God, knowing good and evil”.
Every Lent sets this lesson before us as we are invited to follow Jesus to Calvary and beyond to the risen life of Easter. But every Lent, and perhaps each day of our lives too, the Tempter also stands before us with half-truths and truncated versions of the good. With God’s grace, may we respond as Jesus does, saying, “Begone, Satan!” (Mt 4:10).
If we find “an eye for an eye” a rather barbarous approach to personal justice, it shows how influenced we are by Christian ethics both individually and as a society. Because this Levitical injunction (cf Lev 24:20), which is also found in the Code of Hammurabi and in Roman Law, was originally a genuine advance in morality and public justice. It was meant to limit the penalty exacted for wrongs done to the person so that revenge was not limitless. One could not, as certain ancient Chinese codes sometimes allowed, eliminate an entire clan because of a wrong done to one person!
But as Gandhi observed wryly: “An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind”. So, Christ’s teaching goes beyond this reciprocal version of justice with its idea of giving to each person what is his or her due. Once more, Christ’s Sermon on the Mount challenges the wisdom of the world with God’s wisdom, which is characterized by love. For God loves all alike, both the just and the unjust (cf Mt 5:45). This is his Way.
However, it would be a mistake to think that Jesus is therefore telling us in today’s Gospel to be pushovers; that we’re neither to fight nor even to flee but are to passively give in to evil done to us, and even invite it. This appears to be what Jesus is saying: “Do not resist one who is evil”; “let him have your cloak as well” (Mt 5:39f) but, in fact, the examples of evil which Jesus uses are not life-threatening as such. So, Jesus doesn’t seem to me to be saying that we should not defend our life when it is being directly threatened, or that we should not protect the innocent from direct harm.
Nonetheless, Jesus does give us examples of evils which do injure us in some way. More specifically, they injure our very humanity and the dignity that belongs to each human being as a “God’s temple”, as St Paul put it. Because Jesus uses examples of acts which are designed to humiliate one, which treat one as a lesser being, such as when a Roman soldier would force someone to carry something thus making him a beast of burden. But should we then respond to these acts of aggression on our humanity with inhumanity, with violence and hatred? Such, I suppose is the “wisdom of this world”, and the state of our wounded and broken world exemplifies this. But, as St Paul says, such worldly ‘wisdom’ is “folly with God” (1 Cor 3:19). So, what is one to do?
Jesus teaches us a different way: his way, which is thus, God’s way. And, as the Dominican Geoffrey Preston put it so memorably, Jesus Christ is God’s way to be Man. Hence, Jesus teaches us to respond to inhuman actions not with yet more inhumanity but with true humanity; with a humanity that comes from him who is “true Man”.
In the first place, then, Christ teaches that evil is not to be met with evil; violence with still more violence. For to respond to an aggressive action with an identically mirrored reaction is to lock the human situation of animosity into a hopeless impasse. But this is not mere passivity. Rather, evil is to be met with an active freedom: with courage and virtue and the good. So, Christ urges us to stand our ground so that we are not made into victims or inferiors. On the contrary, we rise above the bullies and show them the deep injustice and inhumanity of what they’re doing. We surprise our aggressors with compassion, forgiveness, selflessness, and ultimately, love. In this way, the Christian action aims to reveal the truth of the injustice being done, and to shame the aggressor into a change of heart so that he can also find his true humanity.
This, of course, is what Jesus does on the Cross. For the Cross reveals who we are as sinners. There, the Innocent One is condemned and violently executed – an icon of Man’s inhumanity to Man. Indeed, as Rowan Williams says: “The only fully human person is seen as the enemy of humanity… [Jesus carries] the cost of our ingrained revolt against who we really are” – the cost of sin which always dehumanizes us. For when we sin, when we retaliate and react with evil and aggression, we are being less-than-human. Hence, God’s response is to call us back to our true self; to call us from sin and its inhumanity to the true humanity shown in Jesus Christ. Here, then, is the wisdom of God, and Jesus wants to restore his Spirit of divine love to our hearts so that we can be as fully human and free to love as he is; to love even in the face of evil done to us.
But how is this possible? Perhaps a few striking examples may help.