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The readings for the Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C, are perfect for the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. They point directly at our Lenten goal of Easter renewal and the obstacles that stand in our way: our own pride, vanity and sensuality.
And of course, our Lenten goal is just a proxy for our ultimate goal: a successful life that ends in our own resurrection to Jesus’s side, with our family and friends, forever.
I mention family and friends because Jesus wants us to know that our pride not only makes us fail personally — it leads to the failure of our loved ones.
In Sunday’s Gospel, Jesus gives a whole series of brief sayings. Often, scholars suggest that Luke is simply compiling a “best of”collection of Jesus’s words in one place here, but that’s not necessarily the case. It could very well be that Jesus is doing what Hebrews often do — stringing together a number of parallel words of wisdom, driving his point home through repetition with a little variety.
What point is he driving home? That you are required to improve others, but that means you have to improve yourself first.
There is much to improve.
Last, he says that if your own life is undisciplined and misdirected, you are no good to anyone: “For people do not pick figs from thornbushes, nor do they gather grapes from brambles.”
But don’t miss the fact that Jesus also gives a way to achieve greatness in each of these areas.
Look at the high hopes his words give us. Of course a blind guide cannot lead a blind person, but Jesus explains how a blind guide can become a true guide to other blind people: “Remove the wooden beam from your eye first; then you will see clearly to remove the splinter in your brother’s eye.” Not only do we have the ability to restore our spiritual sight; we can restore sight to others.
And of course we only make things worse when we try to use our own wisdom to improve upon the Gospel, but Jesus says “when fully trained, every disciple will be like his teacher.” That is quite a statement, one that confirms that the Catholic Church shares in the mission and authority of Jesus Christ himself.
Next Jesus gives his greatest vote of confidence in us. Ordinarily, as Jesus has said, “No one is good except God alone.” Here he explains how, united to God, we can become “a good person” for others. He says: “A good person out of the store of goodness in his heart produces good, but an evil person out of the store of evil produces evil.”
And that is what Lent, our long preparation for Easter, is meant to do for us. St. Paul explains how.
The Second Reading is all about the Resurrection of Jesus Christ and how to prepare for it by internalizing it, saying:
“When this which is corruptible clothes itself with incorruptibility and this which is mortal clothes itself with immortality, then the word that is written shall come about:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.
Where, O death, is your victory?
Where, O death, is your sting?”
As St. Augustine put it, “The apostle Paul seems to have directly pointed his finger at the flesh when he wrote: “this which is corruptible must put on incorruptibility.”
“The sting of death is sin,” Paul adds. “But thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”
The Resurrection is the moment when Jesus deprives sin and death of its power, and our Easter is the moment when we share in his victory, if we are united with him. St. Paul gives his own Lenten program in greatness: “Therefore, my beloved brothers and sisters, be firm, steadfast, always fully devoted to the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
Two lists Paul made in his letter to the Galatians to explain the difference between “corruptible flesh” and the “incorruptibility” that comes from a devotion to the Lord.
The “flesh list” is great fodder for an examination of conscience. Use it to ferret out addictions or temptations that you should work on during Lent. It says: “Now the works of the flesh are plain: immorality, impurity, licentiousness, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, anger, selfishness, dissension, party spirit, envy, drunkenness, carousing, and the like. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things shall not inherit the kingdom of God.”
Ouch. There are many things on the list that point a finger directly at us today — impurity, enmity, partisanship, and all forms of “carousing” (seeking pleasure thoughtlessly) come to mind.
The best way to fight each is to say an absolute “No!” to temptation, asking Jesus, Mary and Joseph to fight at your side. Negotiating with temptation fails as soon as it’s tried. Trying to pay sin off with a smaller version of what tempts you never works — quite the opposite. It strengthens the temptation and weakens your will. Sin creates a proclivity to sin; virtue engenders virtue.
Paul also gives a positive program for your spiritual life, a “Spirit list” of things to build up this Lent, saying: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such there is no law.”
Apply Lenten “fasting” to the flesh list and Lenten “prayer and almsgiving” to the Spirit list to receive extraordinary graces. The Church calls them the “Fruits of the Holy Spirit,” and they cool our anxiety and enliven our relationships.
Jesus says it’s obvious to all if you have cultivated these fruits or not, every time you speak.
“For every tree is known by its own fruit,” he says, and adds, “from the fullness of the heart the mouth speaks.”
That harks back to the Book of Sirach, in the First Reading. “The fruit of a tree shows the care it has had; so too does one’s speech disclose the bent of one’s mind. Praise no one before he speaks,” it says.
If there is impurity, strife, jealousy and anger in our hearts, it will show up in what we say — in what we choose to talk about, joke about and notice out loud about others. If there is joy, patience, gentleness and self-control in our hearts, everyone who hears us will know it, and be made a little bit better by it.
Take this Lent as a chance to uproot the unattractive, anti-Christian parts of your heart and to plant the seeds of the Christian life so that they will grow, in the Psalm’s words, “like the palm tree, like the cedar of Lebanon” that “shall bear fruit even in old age, vigorous and sturdy.”