Saturday, March 8, 2014

Choosing the way of Christ (Reflections on the First Sunday of Lent, Matthew 4:1-11)

A number of years ago, while still teaching at university, one of my bright students came to talk to me, asking if it were at all possible for me change his grade from a B+ to an A. He was a good student, very smart, diligent, and hardworking, but his results simply didn't merit anything more than a B+. So I told him, I'd give him an A if he could live with the fact that while I thought he didn't really deserve the grade, he nonetheless "asked" me for it, and that the A he'd get was simply something I "gave" him. He scratched his head, smiled, and replied “no”. "It's okay, father," he said, "I understand completely". 

I did tell him that I actually admired his attitude. I said it showed aggressiveness, drive, and the will to succeed and make it big. (He said he wanted to raise his GPA as he was seriously considering going to Law School.) At the same time, I had to remind him that while aggressiveness, drive, and the desire to make it big, can in fact guarantee a good degree of success in life, it's only integrity that can give true fulfillment and peace of heart and mind. And those are two different things.

We read in today’s gospel of Jesus going to the desert to prepare himself for the difficult work that lay ahead of him. The story goes that while in the desert, he had a vision of the suffering he would endure and the death he will face—all in the name of doing God’s will. And he found himself wondering whether he in fact wanted it. Can’t there be an easier way? 

That’s when the tempter shows up and says: “You want to save people? Why do it God’s way? Why make it difficult for yourself? I’ve got an easier way for you”. And he presents Jesus with three temptations: bread—the symbol of wealth, power, and finally, fame and popularity.

These are the world’s solutions to all our problems.  They’re the easy way out. The interesting thing is, Jesus was himself tempted by them. Here he was, at the beginning of his ministry, being shown two ways of doing things: God’s way, which was tough and required sacrifice, and the world’s way, which was quick, painless, and easy. Would you have chosen God’s way? Would I? Why would anyone want to do that? 

In the story of Christ’s passion and death, no character is more fascinating and perhaps compelling than Judas: the man who sold his friend for thirty pieces of silver. Judas, we are told by bible scholars, was the most intelligent of the disciples. More than any other disciple, Judas was convinced that Jesus was in fact the long-awaited Messiah.

But he also wanted the Messiah to be a political and earthly king whose power would easily destroy Israel’s enemies. Judas wanted the easy way. Forget integrity; it is the goal that matters most.

Judas did believe in Jesus. But he wondered why Jesus seemed more interested in taking the hard road rather than the easy one. And so in one last act of desperation, Judas betrays Jesus. Why? Because, like the devil in the gospel today, he wanted to force the hand of God. He believed that when Jesus was finally suffering, God would be forced to save his son. And that would finally reveal Jesus’ true identity to the whole world.

Judas completely misunderstood the way of Christ. Like the devil in today’s gospel, Judas wanted Jesus to choose the easy way out. He wanted Jesus to choose the world’s way. Instead, Jesus chose God’s way.

Judas wasn’t alone of course. The other disciples thought the same. Peter tried to persuade Jesus not to go through with his plan. It was then that Jesus calls Peter “Satan” and tells him to think “the way God does”, and not the way men do. The brothers James and John asked Jesus to give them the seats of power on his left and his right when he comes to power. And the rest of the disciples kept arguing about who among them was the greatest.

And what about ourselves? How often have we promised to say ‘no’ to the temptations that come to us, only to find ourselves giving in to them again and again. How often have we resolved to choose the way of integrity only to fall back on the easy way out?

By saying ‘no’ to the world’s temptations, Christ had in fact sealed his fate: he was to suffer and die. But by doing so, he also affirmed once and for all, that he was God’s Son and secured for himself, God’s promise that after suffering and pain, there will be victory and everlasting joy.

Likewise, by saying ‘no’ to the temptations we encounter in our lives, we also seal our fate. For our life will be a constant struggle to do what is right. And that is never easy. But by doing so, we will, like Christ, affirm that we are sons and daughters of God, and not of the world. And in doing so, we secure for ourselves true greatness in this life and in the next—a greatness that wealth, power, and fame cannot buy.

Today, the first Sunday of Lent, Christ confronts us with a question: Shall we choose the world’s way, or God’s way? Shall we choose the way that sells ourselves short, or shall we go for the way of integrity: Christ’s way? The choice, of course, is ours alone.

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