Sunday, March 5, 2017

EVEN IF I DO NOT MAKE IT TO THE PROMISED LAND (The world will tempt us to calculate; like Jesus we must respond with a total and absolute surrender to the Father's will.) Reflections on the First Sunday of Lent, Matthew 4:1-11

Your heart, O God, is my Promised Land. Your heart is my true home. For that home I ache; and to that home, my heart, my mind, my body, and soul, wish nothing more than to return.

I’ve always been fascinated by the story of Moses, that great man of the desert, the once mighty prince of Egypt, Israel’s great lawgiver, leader, and guide, a man so close to God that he was allowed, albeit from a cleft in the rock, to see God passing by. But the part of Moses’ story that has captivated me most is his final encounter with God on Mount Nebo (Deut. 34:1-7), when he was allowed to gaze (perhaps he did so longingly) at the Promised Land, the piece of earth he and his people had been promised, the prize for which he had sacrificed and given up everything. Now, as his earthly life was drawing to a close, Moses was finally being shown the fulfillment of Israel’s hopes and dreams for which he had so painstakingly worked and even suffered.

And yet we know how that final encounter between Moses and God ended. His life was not to have a fairy-tale ending; there would be no “happily ever after.” Instead, now at the end of all things, Moses is told by the God he had so faithfully served, the Master who had yanked him out of his comfortable life in Pharaoh’s palace, the deity who spoke from the burning bush and promised to walk alongside him and his people:

"You shall not enter the Promised Land."

Scripture, of course, gives us an explanation. The Israelites had begged Moses for water and God instructed him to speak to the rock at Horeb so that water may flow from it. (Num. 20:12) Instead, Moses chose to strike the rock twice. Was it disobedience that led him to do so? Was it fear? Was it doubt? Perhaps his being denied entry into the Promised Land was its direct result. Perhaps God had become angry at him, frustrated that he, like Israel, had questioned God’s ability to deliver. But whether or not a causal link exists between these two events, the fact remains: Moses didn’t make it to the Promised Land. 
Each time I read this part of Scripture, I can’t help but think in ordinary, even worldly (and I dare say human) terms: How sad. How tragic. How harsh. How unfair! Who would want to serve such a God? Who would want to follow such kind of Master? Would I? Perhaps it was Moses’ lack of faith that caused him to stumble. But surely I am not stronger than Moses. My faith certainly isn’t. What if, at the end of all things, at the end of all the sacrifice I am asked to make, after all the challenges, difficulties, problems, headaches and heartaches I endure, I am told – like Moses – “You shall not enter the Promised Land”? Perhaps if I were to know from the outset that this too would be my fate, I would simply say no, I would simply refuse, and like that wealthy young man in the New Testament, I’d simply “walk away.”

A student once asked me a question in an Ethics class: “Would we do good if we knew we wouldn’t be getting anything in return?” 

Did Moses know that this was how his life would end? What did he get? Did he receive anything in return? Did all that selflessness, did any of that sacrifice for God and for his nation, redound to his own good? Wasn’t the Promised Land for all of Israel, himself included?

What would we do if we were to find ourselves in his place? Would we still do good if we somehow knew we wouldn’t be getting anything in return for it? Would we still do God’s will if we didn’t have any guarantee that something good would come out of it, something good for us? Should we risk everything?
Moses did. 

The temptation, of course, is to calculate. Isn’t that what the world does? – It encourages us to play our cards well so that we have a guaranteed return on our ‘investment’ - a return for the difficulties, the challenges, and the suffering we are sure to endure by obeying God’s will. 

Is that not what the tempter presented Jesus as a possible way out of the hardships he was about to face? Jesus goes into the desert to prepare himself for the difficult work that lay ahead and the devil offers an easy way out: wealth, power, and finally, fame and popularity. Surely with these – the tempter urges – Jesus would have no problem accomplishing his goal. Why do it the hard way when an easier way is right there, staring him in the face? 

Three times, the tempter tried to convince Jesus to calculate, and to calculate well. Three times Jesus responded by reaffirming his faith and trust in his Father. Three times the world tried to draw him in, offering him a guaranteed return – success without sacrifice, conquest without risk, triumph without pain; three times he refused, putting his trust instead in God, no matter where such trust may lead. But this had always been his way - the way of trust and absolute surrender to his Father's will, following him wherever he leads, no matter where he leads.

St. Francis de Sales once said, “If God, by his infinite justice, decides to send me to hell forever, I only ask that I be given the grace to love him there.”

The world says, “There is no guarantee that I’ll receive a return, I therefore need to carefully calculate everything I do, everything I say, every step I take—to make sure that whatever I do I receive a return.”

The way of the world is the way of calculation. It is born out of uncertainty and is rooted in fear: the fear of failing, the fear of not achieving our goal, the fear of not getting what we believe should be rightfully ours. 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 and instead placed his life completely in his Father’s hands.

We all, from time to time, will 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 people 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 own ministry. “You have to do it,” he says to me. “You’re not getting any younger. Imagine all the good you can do in that position.” Do you think I wasn’t tempted? 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 cease, and we must take that leap of faith into God’s awaiting arms; because our life isn’t like a game of chess, neither is our vocation, neither is our faith – if they are to be authentic. 

We shall throughout our lives as seminarians, as priests or religious, as Christian men and women, be faced with the temptation to calculate in order to “get ahead”, in order to enter our own “Promised Land.” Even Jesus was presented with that temptation in today’s gospel – three times, in fact. Yet three times as well, he reaffirmed his faith and trust in the plan God had for him.

Jesus, of course, suffered and died the most ignominious death of a common criminal. As an atheist once said, “Jesus died a loser’s death: abandoned by his friends, abandoned by the people he sought to save, abandoned by  his strength, abandoned by the very God and Father he trusted. In the history of the world’s failures, he was one of the biggest.”

Like Moses, Jesus didn’t “enter the Promised Land.”

But this world was never the Promised Land! Victory in this world has never been the Promised Land. Wealth, power, popularity and fame – neither are these the Promised Land. And that’s what this world, with its all its calculations will never quite understand.
Because Moses did enter the Promised Land! And so did Jesus! For the Promised Land that Moses entered and which Jesus never left but carried with him wherever he went, giving him courage and strength no matter the suffering, pain and sorrow he endured – that land is the heart of God himself, and it is what awaits those who spurn the world’s calculations and instead abandon themselves completely to Him.

Your heart, O God, is my Promised Land. Your heart is my true home. For that home I ache; and to that home, my heart, my mind, my body, and soul, wish nothing more than to return.

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