Jules Does

Jules Does Lent: The Divine To-Do List

Posted on: February 23, 2016

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Often in the Gospels, we see Christ encounter people who are eager to know how to be good. They want to know exactly what it is that they need to do to please God and in so doing gain eternal life. These stories always pull me up short because I too would like to know what to do to be a good person and to go to heaven – who doesn’t? The rich young man from Matthew 19 and I have a lot in common. For those of us who like having clear instructions to follow, asking the Lord God Almighty for a simple list of do’s and don’t’s is very tempting.

What’s more, God often obliges! Brilliant! Not only do we have the 10 Commandments (“The ULTIMATE Ten Rules To Being A Good Person… Number Six Will BLOW YOUR MIND”), but we also have passages like today’s first reading: do the following good things, or you’ll bring down your own destruction upon your heads. Right-o, God! Search for justice, be kind to orphans and widows, got it. Thanks, God!

We may at this point be ticking boxes off in our heads. Have I oppressed any widows lately? No? Good, more heaven points for me. Have I been striving for justice? Well, I signed that change.org petition the other day, so I’d say that counts. Gosh, getting into heaven is a breeze!

But then comes the Psalm for today. This should shake us out of our complacency in time for the Gospel, since it has one of those pesky allusions we get so often during Lent to the fact that our sacrifices (in the case of the Old Testament the sacrifices are animal offerings, but we can easily exchange those for our Lenten sacrifices or even our good deeds) are not of interest to God. What really matters is the disposition of our hearts – after all, how can we sacrifice to God and speak about the ways He has told us to live while all along our hearts are at best asleep and at worst actively hostile to true, internal change?

The Gospel for today goes even further. The passage is intriguing, as Jesus actually tells his followers that the Pharisees and scribes make good points and give advice that ought to be followed. This may surprise us slightly, as only a few chapters earlier Jesus tells his followers to be on their guard against the Pharisees and Sadducees. The real problem with the religious elite, Jesus explains, is that they do not practice what they preach. They are tremendously bound to this world, despite being religious teachers who seem to do and say all of the right things. Jesus tells his followers that they are supposed to go to the other extreme – shun titles of honour, reject the temptation to be exalted over each other, seek to be the lowest.

What an inversion of the normal world! What would society look like if we all genuinely treated others as better than us? What would happen if we all wanted to serve each other genuinely? What would happen if the words of our mouths and the deeds of our hands matched our hearts?

One verse from the Gospel reading has really stuck with me today. It’s verse 4: “They tie up heavy burdens and lay them on men’s shoulders, but will they lift a finger to move them? Not they!” What are these burdens? In the context of the rest of the passage, the burdens must be the religious standards the Pharisees tell everyone else to stick to – be careful not to do this, be sure to do that – while ignoring their own advice. If the Pharisees shouldered the same burdens as the people whom they advised, the burden would be much lighter. I see the logic of this – how frustrating and lonely is it to be following a certain course of behaviour and to see others, particularly those who claim to be doing the same thing, doing exactly nothing. Similarly, I always feel guilty when someone catches me doing something that I myself have advised them not to do. The shame of being caught in hypocrisy!

Thinking of hypocrisy and the difference between what I say, what I do and what I believe led me to think of how Jesus, who is the exact opposite of a hypocrite, reveals this aspect of His nature in the New Testament. Far from burdening others, His burden is light. Instead of leaving us to get on with our own problems, He invites us to cast our burdens on Him because He loves us and tells us to share each other’s burdens as well. While the Pharisees burden people and refuse to lift a finger to help, Christ picks up the burden of His cross and carries it all the way to Calvary to die for us.

Lists of how to be good will always be incomplete, because there is an infinite range of different situations in which we can find ourselves – being consumers, parents, friends, children, students, employees etc etc. Ultimately what we really need are guiding principles rather than specific rules, and today Christ gives us some of the greatest and most challenging principles of all – humble yourself. Mean what you say and do what you mean. Above all, love each other.

That list’s much harder to tick off, isn’t it?

 

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