Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 11, 2018

Fourth Sunday of Lent, March 11, 2018

Fr. Forlano, St. Stanislaus Parish 

We hear it all the time – that there is some kind of opposition between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. The God of the Old Testament was a wrathful, vengeful God – smiting the enemies of Israel and punishing the chosen people when they were unfaithful to the Covenant. Jesus, on the other hand, in the New Testament, reveals the face of the Father, a face of tender mercy.  He eats with sinners and welcomes the outcast. He forgives the sinful woman and praises the pagans who exhibit great faith. How do we reconcile what appears to be a God who expresses anger and wrath on one hand with the God who is kind and merciful?  Does God have a split personality? One time he is angry and jealous and at other times he is gentle and infinitely patient? God is love.  God is tender mercy. So these differences we see and judgments that we make about God are really our projections on God – projecting human emotions onto God – our emotions that are fleeting and always changing. But God is the same, yesterday, today, and forever. He is love. His love is eternal and unchanging. So what appears as anger to us, or absence to us, or punishment to us, is simply a different expression of God’s love. When things go “badly” for us – when things went badly for God’s people – God in a way is purifying and cleansing his people, loving them in a way that at the time they couldn’t understand. 

In the first reading from the Book of Chronicles, we hear some of the history of a particularly difficult time in the history of Israel. “The princes of Judah, the priests, and the people added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations and polluting the Lord’s temple.” They were worshiping false gods (the gods of the nations) and even bringing those gods into the temple. And how does the Lord respond? “Early and often did the Lord… send messengers to them, for he had compassion on his people and his dwelling place.” But this love was rejected.   The prophets God sent were mocked. The people ignored the warnings, “until the anger of the Lord against his people was so inflamed that there was no remedy.”  Then the enemies of Israel, the ones they cozied up to, trusting them more than God, turned on them, burnt down the temple, destroyed Jerusalem, and carried off those who weren’t killed into slavery into Babylon. So this is the wrath of God.  How do we understand it? When God respects our freedom and allows us to live with the choices we make, to experience the consequences of our decisions, this is what the scriptures calls the wrath or the anger of God. When we are given the opportunity to learn from our mistakes, to come to the realization ourselves that our choices are not the best, when we learn from experience that our ideas and efforts are not what will bring us happiness, that is what scripture calls the wrath of God.  That God permits us to suffer that way, is that contrary to a loving God?

Perhaps a contemporary example that many of us can relate to would be the example of the elderly person who insists on staying in his or her own home by themselves when they physically can’t take care of themselves anymore. They refuse help. They ignore the warnings from family members and the advice of their doctors. So when the person falls and breaks a hip or worse, were the children and family members who gave the warnings being unloving? Were they being spiteful and wrathful by respecting the decision of the elderly person?  Not at all. God, like those family members, when the person falls, rushes to help, and is waiting for the person to face reality and come to the decision on his own that it is time to move on – to move to a better place. In this light, the “bad things” that happen to us, become expressions of mercy when they wake us up to reality and to our need for God – when they help us re-evaluate our situation and our perspective on things. 

After working for this public relations firm for nearly a year – this was my first real full-time job – in public relations, I began to become burned-out. I was frustrated, becoming increasingly less productive, and unhappy at work. My boss noticed and called me in for a meeting. He asked if I was OK. He asked one of the other associates to help me out a little more. I wasn’t happy, but I thought if I just worked harder and got through this rough patch, things would get better. I didn’t want to quit. I wasn’t a quitter. I always succeeded through hard work. This shouldn’t be any different.  But things didn’t get better. And then one day, the head of the firm called me in and told me this wasn’t working out. He was supportive, but it was time for me to move on. I was devastated. I was fired. I was two years out of college and was fired from a job with a respected firm in the career path I wanted to follow. I’m sure I cried and had no idea what I would do next, but soon after I felt an almost immediate relief – like a big burden was lifted off of my shoulders. I took time to re-evaluate what I wanted to do with my life, began to do some volunteer work, saw a counsellor, read a lot, and prayed a lot.  It was in this time that the seeds of my vocation to the priesthood began to sprout. I look back at that firing as a great mercy, and am thankful for that boss for letting me go. It became an opportunity for me to really ask the question about what was important in my life and what was I looking for. It was a time of purification. God was with me, but I couldn’t see him at the time because my focus was on other things.  I was preferring other things to God, but that event, that “fall” if you will, helped me to see the light, and come to live in the truth. Now I can see as St. Paul says, that God is rich in mercy, loving us even in our transgressions. Our salvation is a grace.  “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God.” We are not saved from our works –  by working harder, but by his mercy. The Gospel too reminds us that God so loved the world… he did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” He does this by respecting our freedom, respecting what we prefer.  He doesn’t condemn, but we condemn ourselves by preferring the darkness over the light. 

Lent is a time to remember the mercy of God and to become more and more open to his presence – to hear his voice and call to conversion in the events that happen in our lives. God is not angry at us like we get angry at persons and things. He loves us and doesn’t abandon us. What happens is not random or accidental. Let’s look at Jesus exalted – lifted up on the Cross, and be confident that it is from the cross that his mercy flows.

Third Sunday of Lent, March 4, 2018

Third Sunday of Lent, March 4, 2018

Fr. Forlano, St. Stanislaus Parish 

We often point to the Gospel episode of the cleansing of the Temple and say, “Even Jesus got angry” or “even Jesus lost his temper” and look at it as an example of “righteous anger” to justify the times when we’ve been outraged, made a scene, or displayed a show of force in the face of injustice.  But a close look at the scriptural accounts of the cleansing of the temple by Jesus – an event recounted in some form in all four gospels – reveals no mention of “anger” or the emotional state of Jesus.  The only description that we have of the disposition of Jesus at this event is what we hear in today’s Gospel from John, a quote from Psalm 69, “Zeal for your house will consume me”, that was brought to the mind of the disciples who witnessed Jesus’ action.  When Jesus, with a hand-made whip, drove out the money changers with the sheep and oxen and spilled the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables, it is interesting to note that he wasn’t arrested.  The temple guards are not called in.  Jesus is not treated like a terrorist or someone who came to attack the temple.  This is not the act of an anarchist or anti-establishment rebel.  The Jewish leaders instead say, “What sign can you show us for doing this?”  They recognize that Jesus is acting with authority, and they want to know who he is that he can do this.  One of the expectations of the Messiah would be that he would cleanse and purify the temple.  The Messiah would come to reestablish the identity of Israel as a people of right praise – to cast out all forms of false worship.  The cleansing of the Temple is a symbolic act in which Jesus is claiming to be the Messiah, and the definitive sign of his identity will be the resurrection of his body on the third day. 

It is worth noting that there is nothing inherently wrong or evil with those who sold the oxen, sheep, doves, and other animals necessary for the sacrifice.  The same can be said for the moneychangers.  All these were necessary to fulfill the obligations of worship.  Pilgrims would come from far and wide – from foreign countries – and needed to exchange money into the local currency in order to buy the animals for sacrifice.  Since it wasn’t convenient to travel with the animals, it made sense to buy them when they arrived in Jerusalem.  All these things made it easier for people to worship, but over time the money changers and vendors went from being outside the temple area to having a place within the temple area proper.  The temple authorities could more easily control and regulate what came into the temple, but with this control and regulation, came the possibility of corruption.  What would it cost to become “the official sheep vendor” or “exclusive oxen dealer” of the Jerusalem Temple?  In the name of convenience, “quality control,”  and standardization, the Temple had become more of a marketplace than a house of prayer.  Starting with good intentions, the temple officials let good things creep into the temple and over time the purpose of the temple became obscured and corrupted.  What happened in the temple became more about those in charge  – those managing the operation – than about the worship of God. 

In this season of Lent, and especially this Sunday, it is worth asking the question, “What good things have I let creep into the Father’s house?”  “What good things, for the sake of convenience or efficiency, have I let take over the Sabbath?”  Has Sunday for me become a day to catch up on work  – work at home and even work-related work, or is Sunday a day of rest?  A day to rest in the Lord and experience the freedom that comes from giving the Lord space to work in my life?  We may not be bowing down before idols carved from stone, but anytime something takes precedence over the worship of God, anytime even something good takes priority over time for God, we’ve made for ourselves a false god.  Another way to look at that question of false worship is to ask yourself, “What is it that I have zeal for?”  or “What is it that consumes my life?”  “What is it that gets me out of bed in the morning?”  If it is duty or obligation, then my relationship with God has become a marketplace – a place of exchange or bargaining – about my work, instead of an encounter with the God who dwells among us. 

Our bodies are, through the gift of our baptism, temples of the Holy Spirit, and Jesus has the authority to cleanse us.  Do we recognize that authority?  Jesus understands our human nature well because he has assumed it and redeemed it.  Let’s not be afraid to let Jesus into our temple so that we may be purified of any false gods and return to giving right praise to God our Father.