William Shakespeare, the famous poet and playwright, is known for his great insight into human nature. In one of his plays, he has an impish character by the name of "Puck" describe us in just five words: "What fools these mortals be!"
Unfortunately, many of us mortals do play the fools' role. At church we continue to pray, pay and obey. Now the praying part is delightful! 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 church institutions? The same folks that tortured and killed people who did not fully accept church dogmas as understood by these same authorities? The same folks that insist that self-chosen birth control methods are immoral? The same folks that condemned Galileo for declaring the world to be round, not flat, and the earth to revolve around the sun, not vice versa? Are these the very folks that declared and supported wars on people who didn't see the world as they saw it? That refuse to give an honest accounting of church contributions? The same folks who hide priest molesters from the law and still fight tooth and nail to keep chancery records secret? Unfortunately these are the very ones to whom we are supposed to pledge obedience and give our monies! Yes indeed, "What fools these mortals be!"
Obedience is indeed a virtue. But we need to be careful to whom we pledge obedience. Obedience to church authorities is a slippery slope. Church history and our own human experience confirm this. Yet, obedience to Jesus is never a slippery slope. Today Lent begins. In a few moments, ashes will be traced on our foreheads. For the next 40 days we accompany Jesus in the wilderness. He is our desert mentor, our teacher in the ways of the Spirit. In this evening's Gospel, Jesus teaches us three lessons for our Spirit lives. It is good to pay attention to what Jesus says, because, unlike church authorities, he always speaks with integrity and compassion.
First, prayer. "When you pray," Jesus says, "don't draw attention to yourself" so as to look holy in the eyes of other people. Jesus often found a quiet place to pray. We can too : whether on the hiking trails of a neighborhood park, the back acres of nearby farmland or forest, or the privacy of your own room at home. No matter the location, our prayer should reflect Jesus' prayer: searching for God's will in our lives, never demanding that 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." This is the essence of genuine prayer!
Next, fasting. "When you fast," Jesus says, "don't look gloomy." People with a martyr complex do that. Lenten fasting gives us a brief opportunity to empathize with millions of other people : all God's creatures : who have little or no food. Fasting is our meager attempt to walk in their shoes (if shoes they have!) if only for a few weeks. That's a powerful reminder of how blest we are in our lives. Our fasting ought to be an act of solidarity with the world's poor and hungry.
Finally, almsgiving. "When you give alms, don't blow a trumpet...don't even let your left hand know what your right hand is doing," Jesus says. A far cry from a pastor I knew in my first parish assignment 50 years ago. He printed the names and money donations of all his parishioners in the weekly bulletin! When we give alms to people in need, it is not charity. It is simple justice. Saint Basil, a 4th century monk, said: "The bread that you aren't eating belongs to the hungry. The clothes that you keep 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 for sharing, not for ourselves.
For the next six weeks, we walk this Lenten journey with Jesus. Let our prayer, fasting and almsgiving come from our hearts. Let's no longer be the object of Puck's joking one-liner: "What fools these mortals be!"