I read a story about an angry man who stormed into the postmaster's office, waving several pieces of mail. “For weeks I've been pestered with threatening letters,” he shouted, “and I want something done about it.” “I'm sure we can help,” the postmaster calmly replied. “It's against the law to send threats through the mail. Do you know who's sending these threatening letters?” “I certainly do,” the man snapped. “It's those people in the IRS.” The moral of the story: don't mess with the IRS.
The word of God carries us back in our imaginations to the sixth century before Jesus (the 500s), to a prophet who speaks to a people who have lost everything they thought would endure forever: their kingdom—now conquered, their city Jerusalem—now ruined, and their temple-now razed to the ground. And even worse, many of these Hebrews were deported to Ancient Babylonia. The prophet asks rhetorically: Has God completely forgotten us? But he answers immediately: No: “Can a mother forget her child? And even if she should, I will never forget you.”
The author challenges us to trust that God is always near to us even when God seems so far away.
Paul in his letter to the Christian community in Corinth speaks about his vocation or calling as a servant of Jesus Christ, a steward of the divine mysteries. Paul possesses the qualities of an effective disciple, qualities that ought to be ours as well: an awareness of God's presence in his own life and in the lives of others, empathy especially for the needy, courage, loyalty to the tradition handed down, a sense of mission and an ability to verbalize the content of faith in Jesus Christ.
Paul was a grace to others by being grace himself. And we too can be a grace to one another by being grace ourselves.
Paul then reminds the Corinthians that God’s judgment alone matters and challenges us to be faithful to our baptismal calling. Do not judge other people negatively, Paul urges. Why? Because God ultimately will bring to light our motives for doing or not doing the right thing.
In the Gospel according to Matthew, the author challenges us not to worry and fret about so many things. But we all worry, don’t we? We worry about many things: our health, our money, our children, our parents, our retirement pensions, and so forth.
Take the “worry test.” Ask yourself what keeps you awake at night? That may tell you where your heart is.
How many remember the 1990s book titled “Don't Sweat the Small Stuff: And It's All Small Stuff?” The letter of Peter urges us to cast all our worries upon God because God cares for us. Good Pope John XXIII had the right attitude. I suppose that's why he's a saint. When Pope John convened the Second Vatican Council in 1962, all kinds of controversies swirled around the Church. One evening while his secretary was fretting about these disagreements, Pope John suddenly announced he was going to bed. The bewildered secretary asked: how can you sleep at night? Pope John calmly responded he's putting all his worries in the hands of God. God's up all night, he noted; and besides, it's his church, not mine. A good attitude to have.
Discipleship, the Gospel writer continues, requires a single, wholehearted commitment to God. We can’t divide our loyalty between God and mammon, between God and the greedy quest for wealth, power or fame. Seek first the kingdom of God. First things first. Focus first on our relationship with God and one another. And do our best every day, as if it were our only day.
Next Wednesday, we will have our foreheads smudged with ashes and begin once more the Lenten season. It's a time to consider again our priorities in life.
Leo Tolstoy, the 19th century Russian author, can be a good introduction to priorities. Many of us probably had to read his novels “Anna Karenina” and “War and Peace.” But Tolstoy also wrote shorter, profoundly religious novels. In some ways, they are like religious parables, good spiritual reading for Lent.
“A Confession,” for example, describes Tolstoy's own search for meaning and purpose. He discovered that the simple farm people of Russia found the answer to this question through their lively Christian faith: their relationship with God.
Perhaps Tolstoy’s masterpiece was the 75-page novel “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” The story is simple. A man on his deathbed realizes he has wasted his life by living badly, and he's terrified of his fast approaching death. Tolstoy focuses our attention on Ilyich's life, illness and spiritual crisis.
Most of the characters imagine what Ilyich's death means for their own lives, and think how grateful they are that it's Ilyich, and not they, who has died. Ilyich's best friend competes with Ilyich's widow in seeing who can pretend to be more devastated. The mixture of selfishness and disingenuousness in both of them is obvious.
Ilyich, in exchange for luxury and status, has sacrificed his authenticity and integrity. The result is a spiritual barrenness, leaving him ill-equipped to deal with the specter of death. He faces a mortality he never acknowledged. Ilyich always presumed that death was something for other people. Now he realizes its inescapability.
Avoiding thoughts about death in favor of superficialities is not a flaw reserved for 19th-century Russians. It's the story of everyone.
Ilyich's last days are worsened by his realization that he has squandered his short time on earth with shallow trivialities. The servant who attends to him at his deathbed is everything Ilyich is not: humble, poor, devout and selfless. He manages to learn from the servant just before his last breath the purpose of life.
Tolstoy suddenly bathes Ilyich in light but leaves the reader in suspense about Ilyich's salvation or damnation. This novel can be powerful Lenten spiritual reading.
Why? Because Lent is about asking who and what are our most important priorities. We follow Jesus who went out into the wilderness for forty days to ask the same questions.
The 20th century novelist, Frederick Buechner, asks his readers to consider their priorities in life. Buechner gives us an examination of conscience in these questions:
“If you had only one last message to leave to the handful of people who are most important to you, what would it be in twenty-five words or less?
Of all the things you have done in your life, which is the one you would most like to undo? Which is the one that makes you happiest to remember? If this were the last day of your life, what would you do with it? To hear yourself try to answer questions like these is to begin to hear something not only of who you are but of both the way you are becoming and what you are failing to become.
It can be a pretty depressing business all in all, but if sackcloth and ashes are at the start of it, something like Easter may be at the end.”
As we begin again the Lenten season, let us ask God for the grace to get our priorities straight and pursue them singlemindedly.