Thursday of the Third Week of Lent
March 24, 2011
Jer 7: 23-28; Lk 11:14-23
Among the contingent principles for a just war, we find this one: the probability of success. To wage war justly, it is necessary among other conditions that there be a chance to prevail over the enemy. Lacking this condition, it would not just be foolish but it would be morally dubious to engage an aggressor on the field of battle.
Having a chance at success is not only applicable to armed conflict, it’s something that a lot of us employ in life generally. How often we are counseled to devise “win-win” situations – whether it’s in business deals or in social networking. Coming out on top is deeply ingrained in our psyches and it’s hard to disown this mentality.
Personal success is not what you are thinking if you are the prophet Jeremiah. In today’s first reading, the Lord’s prophet presents the covenant God has entered into with His people: “I will be your God and you shall be my people.” (Jer 7:23) Israel will have no truck with this, however.
God instructs Jeremiah further: “[T]hey obeyed not, nor did they pay heed.” (Jer 7:24) The Lord goes on: “They walked in the hardness of their evil hearts and turned their backs, not their faces, to me.”( Jer 7:24)
Against an unrelenting history of stubbornness and intransigence, the Lord does not sweeten His advice to Jeremiah. “When you speak [your] words to them, they will not listen to you either.” (Jer 7:27)
This might sound to some like Jeremiah is being set up for failure. “This [after all] is the nation that does not listen . . . [it does not] take correction.” (Jer 7:28) How, then, could Jeremiah ever think that he might succeed where all of his predecessors fared so badly?
Jeremiah prophesies for the Lord: “Faithfulness has disappeared; the word itself is banished from their speech.” (Jer 7:28) This is true of Israel but it’s surely not true of the prophet sent to the Israelites.
Jeremiah is not the only one in service to the Lord who disavows success. So did Mother Teresa, the Albanian- born nun who won a Nobel Prize for her work with the poorest of the poor. As accomplished as she was, she is known for this remark: “I do not pray for success, I ask for faithfulness.”
It would be a mistake to minimize how much influence a results-oriented approach has on our pastoral planning and evaluation. We have to make decisions all the time on what projects to begin, continue and end. We cannot make these decisions cut off from such practical concerns as what works and what doesn’t, how many showed up and how many stayed away. Not to take these considerations into account is unwise in the extreme and suggests an unflattering naivete about the apostolate and ministry.
A preoccupation with success as it is defined by the marketplace or popular approval makes us little better than spiritual hucksters, intent on purveying a gospel of prosperity – if not financial than social anyway. We’re always getting better on our own, we think. There isn’t any need for reform. This is the kind of mentality which turns every Lent into a kind of athletic endurance contest, completely devoid of facing up to our own sinfulness.
The faithfulness urged in today’s first reading brings us face to face with the Crucified Christ. From one vantage point, the Jesus Whom we follow to Golgotha is a failed messiah. His ministry is not a success as some might judge it – otherwise why is He handed over, mocked, beaten and, finally, nailed to a cross which He Himself dragged and under which He fell three times?
In Saint John’s Gospel, the evangelist records these words of Jesus: “I judge as I hear, and my judgment is just, because I do not seek my own will but the will of the one who sent me.” (Jn 5:30) This is early in Our Lord’s public ministry. The end is not any different, though. In the Garden of Gethsemane, the prayer on Jesus’ lips then is “not my will but yours be done.” (Lk 22:42)
Jesus is the example par excellence of fidelity. We cannot banish faithfulness from our vocabulary unless we banish Him.
The crucible of our fidelity is suffering. And that’s because we just might have to give up cherished ideas, promising futures and other notable signs of success to be faithful. If we don’t ponder this during Lent, when do we take it up in any serious way?
Just this past Sunday, Jesus in the gospel tells a parable about the owner of an orchard. The owner is frustrated that after three years he has not seen any fruit on his fig tree. The gardener counsels: “[L]eave the tree [up] for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it.” (Lk 13:8) The word of God, Isaiah told us more than two weeks ago at Mass, goes forth from God’s mouth. “It shall not return to [the Lord] void, but shall do [God’s] will, achieving the end for which [it] was sent.” (Is 55:11) Over the remainder of Lent, let us endeavor to cultivate that word in the soil of our hearts, fertilizing it with a generous portion of prayer and recollection. This is something worthy of our best effort under God’s inspiration. Then we will have achieved something – then we will have been successful. Then we will be ready for “the nation that does not listen.” (Jer 7: 28)
Msgr Robert Batule
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