Jules Does

Jules Does Lent: Snakes and Stones

Posted on: February 18, 2016

I’ll be the first to say it – Lent is a bit of a downer.

However! After the difficult questions raised by the past few days’ worth of readings, we get a bit of a break today, a day where we are reminded of God’s saving help. Which is a relief to be honest, as I was starting to feel a bit hopeless about the whole thing.

The first reading is taken from the Book of Esther – it’s not very long, go read it now! – and is actually a section which does not feature in Protestant Bibles. I think this is a shame, as it’s a really powerful passage, but anyway. Esther is about to face her husband Xerxes, King of Persia, which you would think wouldn’t be a problem, except that absolutely no one is allowed to come see the king without an invitation on pain of death. To make matters worse, Esther has to think of a way to get Xerxes to rescind an order promoting the killing of the Jews, but she hasn’t told Xerxes that she is a Jew herself. So Esther turns to God in her worry. She puts on sackcloth, puts ashes and dung in her hair (can you imagine a queen with dung in her hair?) and prays from the depths of her soul that God will save her and all of her people. She repeats how alone she is and reminds God of His promise to make the Jews an inheritance for His own. We know from later in the book that Esther is successful and even manages to turn the decree on its head, resulting in the death of Haman, the official who had plotted the massacre of the Jews, as well as the deaths of his ten sons and of many others who wanted to destroy God’s chosen people. It is clear that God does not forget his promises.

The Psalm for the day also dates from the time of Israel’s captivity, and begins with the famous image of the Jews weeping for Zion by the rivers of Babylon. But that’s not the aspect of the Psalm that is emphasised in today’s readings and response. Instead, the reading is full of praise and blessing, and the response says without hesitation “On the day I called, you answered me, O Lord”. God is quick to hear his children, and will not only hear, but act as well. To apply that idea to our current situation, whenever we look to God to support us in a difficult situation, whether over something trivial like really wanting to break your Lenten penance or perhaps over something more serious, God will be there, and be there at once.

The Psalm kind of glances as why this might be the case, but the reason given in the New Testament reading is put much more strongly and clearly: God responds to our needs because God loves us as Our Father. It is as simple and as astounding as that.

But hang on! you may be saying. I prayed for something ages ago, and it was certainly not given to me on the day that I asked for it! In fact, I never received an answer at all! So much for God answering me at once. Well, Christ has an answer for that too. He explains that no father on earth would give his son a snake when he asked for a fish, or a stone when he asked for bread, so we can conclude that the converse is also true. No father, when his son asks for a snake, would actually give him a snake, or would give his son a stone when he knows that the child needs bread, regardless of what the child is asking for. Children are famously terrible at knowing what they need and what is good for them, and it is the parent’s job to give the child what they need.

Sometimes with hindsight it is possible to see moments where we have been asking for snakes and God has given us fish. I used to pray so hard that my first boyfriend would see the error of his ways and come back to me (be nice to me, I was 16 and ridiculous), but God did not make that happen. Instead, he allowed me to meet new people who helped me grow and change and walk the path that has led me to today and to my marvellous, unique and irreplaceable son. Thanks be to God for giving me nourishing bread rather than cold stones!

It might be easy then to leave Mass all content in God’s love, thinking about bread and fish and all manner of good things. But that’s not the end of the reading.

This passage marks the end of the Sermon on the Mount, that tremendous speech that takes up two chapters in the Gospel of Matthew, and the very last sentence not only summarises the sermon, but also everything in the Bible that has come before: love your neighbour as yourself. God will give us what we need, and this will enable us to love each other fiercely and without barriers. Since we have such a generous God, we too can afford to be generous and give others what they need. Again, this use of this passage during Lent serves to draw our attention to Lent’s focus on alms-giving and revealing the love of God (both ours for Him and His for us) through love of neighbour. Our love of God is not meant to be just a private thing, but something which nourishes us and strengthens us to go out into the world and spread that love and trust and faith around.

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