Sunday, February 17, 2013

At some point, our calculations must stop, and we must take the leap of faith, trusting in a God who will never abandon us. (Reflections on Jesus' Temptation in the Desert, on the First Sunday of Lent, Luke 4:1-13)


My good friend, Fr. Robert Vallee asked a very interesting question last Friday during a philosophical conference here at the seminary: Do we always aim for the good of ourselves when we do good to others?

The answer, of course, is “yes, we do”. There’s no path around it. Even Jesus says that if we give of ourselves completely, we will gain ourselves back. “Whoever loses his life for my sake, will find it”. (Matt. 16:25)

Is there a difference then, between the way of Christ (the way of self-giving) and the way of the world (the way that seeks only the good of oneself)?

The way of Christ is the way of trust: When I love others, I may or may not gain myself back, I may or may not receive a return. But I trust that I will; because it was promised by Christ.

The way of the world says, “There’s no guarantee that I’ll receive a return, there’s no assurance that I’ll gain myself back if I give of it completely, I therefore need to carefully calculate everything I do, everything I say, every step I take—to make sure that whatever I do, especially for others, I receive a return, I gain myself back.”

The way of Jesus is the way of faith, of confidence and trust. The way of the world is the way of calculation. It is born out of uncertainty, it is rooted in fear: “I may not receive a return; so I must make sure that I do.”

Pope Benedict’s decision to resign took everyone by surprise, and the question in most people’s minds was “why”? One interesting article, among the hundreds that tried to analyze the pope’s decision, said: “Does he not know that if he gives up the papacy, he makes himself vulnerable to the whims and control of those who will  no longer fear to use him because he no longer has power and authority?”

In fact, another article even suggested that his decision to remain inside the Vatican’s walls after he retires is motivated by fear, not only for his safety, but fear that he will be hounded or even prosecuted for the abuses that have happened in the church over the last few decades.

Amidst the storm that now surrounds him and his choice though, the Holy Father has remained an image of calm, of confidence, of faith, and of trust. He knows he and his beloved Church are both in good hands. He has no need to calculate; he is free.

The temptation to calculate is rooted in fear: the fear of failing, the fear of not achieving our goal, even if our goal or purpose were good.

In the story of Jesus’ passion and death, no character is more fascinating and perhaps compelling than Judas Iscariot: the traitor, the betrayer, the man who sold his friend for thirty pieces of silver.

Judas, we are told by some scripture scholars, probably loved Jesus more any other disciple. He was also the most intelligent of the group—which was why he was in charge of finances. Judas was also the one who was perhaps most convinced, more than any of the disciples, that Jesus was in fact the Messiah, the Son of God. 

But Judas, aside from wanting the Messiah to be a powerful, political, and popular earthly king who would restore Israel by destroying its enemies, was also impatient, and most likely wondered why Jesus had not yet decided to finally establish the Kingdom.

Judas believed in Jesus. Yet he found himself wondering more and more why Jesus seemed more interested in following the path of suffering and death, rather than the path of power and glory. And so in one desperate act of calculation, Judas betrays his teacher and friend. Judas thought he could force the hand of God. 

Believing perhaps that when Jesus was finally getting hurt and suffering in the hands of his enemies, his Father would finally be forced to reveal to the world that Jesus was his son. And he would come down with all his angels and the entire heavenly host to smite and destroy anyone who would dare hurt His beloved son. And that was Judas’ greatest miscalculation.

Jesus’ own temptation in the desert was a temptation to calculate. “If you do this”, says the devil, “you will achieve this”. But Jesus refused to calculate and instead placed his life completely in his Father’s hands.

We all, from time to time, face our own temptations to calculate. “If I say this, my formators will think this”. “If I did this, my superiors will think this”. “If I were to act this way, this is what they will think of me.” “If I take these steps, I will achieve this”.

Awhile ago, a well-meaning priest-friend sent me an email suggesting I seriously consider thinking of ways by which I could move ahead in my ministry. “You have to do it”, he says to me. “Imagine all the good you can do in that position”

Do not think that I wasn’t tempted; because I absolutely was. Thankfully, though, the wiser counsel of other priest-friends prevailed. And so I chose to email my friend back. I told him I’ve ceased, a long time ago, from planning my life, from living it like I were playing a game of chess, anticipating every single one of life’s moves in order to get ahead.

At some point, our calculations must stop, and the leap of confidence, trust, and faith into God’s awaiting arms must be taken; because our life isn’t a game of chess, neither is our vocation, neither is our faith – if they are to be authentic.

We shall throughout our lives – even as priests, and even in the Church, be faced with the temptation to calculate in order to “get ahead”.

Even Jesus was presented with that temptation in today’s gospel.  Three times, he was tempted; three times, he reasserted his faith and confidence in his Father – and Father didn’t fail him.

When you feel tempted to calculate, don’t. Instead, renew and reassert your trust in God. You will not be disappointed.  

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)