"What fools these mortals be!" : a famous quotation of Puck, a character in one of Shakespeare's plays. "What fools these mortals be!"
Unfortunately, many of us mortals play the fools' role. We continue to go to church to pray, pay and obey. But to what authorities are we pledging our obedience and giving our moneys? Are these the same folks that declared slavery to be acceptable and used slaves in their own church institutions until recently? Are these the same folks that tortured and killed people who did not fully accept church dogmas? The same folks that insist that self-chosen birth control methods are immoral? The same folks that condemned Galileo for recognizing that the world is round, not flat, and the earth revolves around the sun, not vice versa? Are these the same folks that put the torch to Saint Joan of Arc and to countless other people in the infamous Spanish Inquisition? That poisoned and murdered popes they didn't approve of? Are these the same folks who refuse to give an honest accounting of how church contributions are used? The same folks who hide priest molesters from the law and still fight tooth and nail to keep their chancery records secret? Are these the people that we are supposed to obey without question? "What fools these mortals be!"
Obedience is a virtue. But we ought to be careful to whom we pledge obedience. Obedience to church authorities is a slippery slope. Human experience confirms this. Obedience to Jesus is never a slippery slope. It's amazing how many things church authorities pronounce judgments upon : things never once mentioned by Jesus, never recorded in the scriptures.
Today Lent begins. Shortly, ashes will be traced on our foreheads; then for the next 40 days we will accompany Jesus in the desert wilderness. He is our desert mentor, our teacher in the ways of the Spirit. In this evening's Gospel, Jesus teaches us three important lessons of our Spirit lives. It is good to pay attention to what Jesus says, because he speaks to us with authority, with integrity and with compassion.
First, prayer. "When you pray," Jesus says, "don't draw attention to yourself" so as to look holy in the eyes of the people around you. Jesus often found a quiet place to pray. We can too : whether it's on the hiking trails of a county or state park, or the back acres of nearby farmland or forest, or in the privacy of your room at home. No matter the location, our praying should reflect Jesus' prayer : searching for Abba God's will in our lives, not demanding that Abba God see things our way. "Thy will be done," Jesus says, "on earth as in heaven." Even when the situation was most stressful, as in his garden agony, Jesus was able to say" "Not my will, but your will be done."
Next, fasting. "When you fast," Jesus says, "don't look gloomy." People with a martyr complex, "Woe is me!" do that. Lenten fasting gives us a short opportunity to recognize and empathize with hundreds of millions of our fellow human beings : all God's creatures, by the way : who have little or no food most every day of their lives. Fasting is our meager attempt to walk in their shoes (if shoes they have!) just for a few weeks. That's a powerful reminder of how blest we really are in our lives. Our fasting then becomes an act of solidarity with the world's poor and hungry.
Finally, the matter of almsgiving. "When you give alms," Jesus says, "don't blow a trumpet...don't even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing." When you give your money and possessions to people in need, it is not charity. It is simple justice. Saint Basil, a 4th century monk and theologian, said: "The bread that you store belongs to the hungry. The clothes that you skeep in boxes, belong to the naked. The shoes you are not wearing, belong to the barefoot. The money you keep hidden, belongs to the poor." Our blessings are to be shared, not kept to ourselves. Then, and then only, can we be called true disciples of Jesus Christ.
This Lent, may we together walk this Lenten journey with Jesus. May our prayer, our fasting and almsgiving come from our hearts. May we no longer be the object of Puck's joking one-liner: "What fools these mortals be!"