Friday, March 02, 2007

Friday in the 1st Week of Lent
What’s Your Pleasure?

Readings: Ezekiel 18:21-28; Psalm 130:1-2, 3-4, 5-7a, 7bc-8; Matthew 5:20-26

If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees...

Recently someone asked me whether God treats everyone equally. What do you think? To be honest, I was hesitant to give a straight answer. Quite apart from the fact that God is Infinite Mystery – far beyond our feeble definitions – there is also the difficulty of pinpointing what we mean by equal. It does sound like a rhetorical question. We have been taught from an early age to think of equality and fairness as virtues. So, of course, God must treat everyone equally, otherwise how can God be considered a virtuous God. Yet, we may wonder whether God really conforms to our ideas of virtue. Or does God not instead challenge us to go beyond them? If your virtue goes no deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees…

The virtue of the scribes and the Pharisees consists in following an external legal code. Everyone must follow this code or face the consequences. Under this code, equal treatment is given for equal performance. That is the code’s idea of fairness. But Jesus challenges this understanding by leading his listeners inward. It’s not just killing that’s objectionable, for example, but the ill-feeling that one might harbour towards another. And, as we know so well, ill-feeling can be expressed in many different ways short of murder. Hasn’t modern psychology taught us all about passive aggression?

External performance is meaningless then, if it doesn’t flow from the wellspring of a loving heart – or at least a heart that is trying to love. Performance without love leads to hypocrisy. Doesn’t Paul say something similar in 1 Corinthians 13?

And in case we may think that Jesus’ critique only applies to the scribes and the Pharisees, we may consider our spontaneous reaction to the first reading today. If you’re like me, you’ll find it easy to sympathize with those who object to God’s dealings with the upright and the wicked. We feel uneasy at the thought of God showing mercy to the one who lives a dissolute life and then suddenly repents just before death. Does this person really deserve to be given the same treatment as those who die after spending a lifetime trying to be good and kind and charitable? Is God being fair? Yet, doesn’t our discomfort demonstrate the extent to which we’re still immersed in the virtue of the scribes and Pharisees? We’re still concerned with measuring performance according to an external code.

But, as with Jesus in the gospel, God takes things onto another plane. The emphasis is not on calculating how many years of virtuous living to credit to each person’s account. Rather, God’s focus is quite simply on that which gives God pleasure. Am I likely to take pleasure in the death of a wicked man…? God takes pleasure in doing what God always does – God wishes only to save. Like the sun that shines on all, and the rain that falls on all, God wishes only what is best for all, good and bad alike. God rejoices in the repentance of the wicked person as much as God grieves at the sin of the virtuous.

If this is the true measure of virtue, then where do we stand? Difficult enough to conform our performance to an external code. How can we be expected to conform our desires to the very heart of God? Isn’t this why we need the season of Lent? We need to allow God gradually to transform us, so that we too may learn to take pleasure only in love and light and life.

What’s your pleasure?

1 comment:

  1. Praise the Lord for I see Him transforming my life more and more to be ready for heaven. We have physical bodies so it is a great pleasure for me to have health. More than that I take pleasure in realising God's work in my life, making it better, helping my spirit become stronger, giving me better understanding of His ways for me. I sometimes have the pleasure of seeing His work in others too, when their lives become better through God's merciful intervention. More than anything else God's love translates to His merciful grace in my life, over and above what can be considered equal or fair.