This coming week, churches everywhere will be filled to capacity as we gather to observe Ash Wednesday. Receiving ashes will hopefully be the first of many opportunities each of us will embrace to give meaning to our Lenten journeys and to acknowledge God’s presence in our lives. Lent has been a particularly important time to me for as long as I can remember. Though I haven’t always succeeded in either developing a Lenten plan of action or in implementing said plan, I do always emerge from this season as an improved version of myself. Though this progress isn’t always externally observable, the changes within me are very, very real…
This year, as I look toward Lent, images from my recent visit to the Holy Land fill me up. There is nothing perfect about that home to Muslim, Jewish and Christian believers, yet it inspires me just the same. Even the non-believers we encountered, including our allegedly agnostic guide, added to the richness we experienced. We began our tour on a roadside high above Jerusalem. Our view of the holy city included a mosque’s golden dome, the steeples of Christian churches and the rooftops of the Jewish Quarter’s synagogues. After allowing us a moment to absorb all of this, our guide reminded us, “All of our lives began here!’ And, indeed, they did!
Later, we walked through the Jewish Quarter and then scaled a rooftop near the place where Jewish men gather to study the Torah. On an adjacent rooftop, Muslim boys played soccer in a feverish attempt to hone their skills for an upcoming match. I couldn’t miss the irony in all of this. Our group had come to deepen our understanding of Israel, the holy places it houses and the people who are descendents of those who walked with Jesus. The men who studied the Torah hoped to deepen their relationship with what they perceive to be God’s Law. The boys who threw themselves into their soccer practice hoped to achieve their personal bests in order to win another game. I’d come to get to know Jesus a bit more intimately. Though all of us breathed the same air and observed the same sites that afternoon, we’d each gathered with our own agendas in hand. Today, Jesus seems to give a nod to those agendas. Today, Jesus encourages us to follow our paths as best we can and as only we can.
My assessment of Jesus’ motives begins with the first reading from Leviticus (19:1-2, 17-18). The writer tells us God sent Moses to offer the Israelites another lesson regarding God’s will. God instructed, “Tell them: Be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.” Though I cannot be certain of God’s intent with regard to our holiness, my dictionary explains: Holy means “belonging to or coming from God; consecrated, sacred; set apart for God.” When God called Moses and his people holy, God assured them that each one was and is very special. Centuries later, when issues arose among Paul’s followers, he echoed God’s sentiments. In today’s second reading (1 Corinthians 3:16-23), Paul began by asking, “Do you not know that you are the temple of God, and the Spirit of God dwells in you?” If there was any doubt, Paul insisted, “You are holy!” Though Jesus seemed to contradict God’s openness to our humanity in the last line of today’s gospel (Matthew 5:38-48), let me assure you of the contrary.
Matthew wrote that Jesus continued to explain The Law to the people. Jesus wanted to be certain that what was expected was clear to all concerned. Jesus told his disciples that they must rise above the expectations of those around them. Jesus ended this challenge by saying, “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” I cannot be certain of the disciples’ feelings regarding this expectation. As for me, I often have trouble being my best average self. Perfection in this sense is almost always beyond my capabilities. Fortunately, this was not Jesus’ intent. Scripture scholars tell us that Jesus’ understanding of perfection was far different from our own. The word “perfect” which Jesus used came from an ancient word for entire, complete and full-grown. Jesus didn’t expect his followers to be flawless. He asked only that they evolve into entire, complete and full-grown versions of themselves. Apparently, becoming the best we can be in the moments at hand is quite enough for our loving Creator.
Perhaps the greatest lesson I learned as I brushed shoulders with those who occupy Jesus’ homeland these days is that each one of us is as uniquely gifted as Jesus’ followers were. Jesus’ invitation to be perfect seems attainable after all. Whenever those Torah scholars and soccer players, my fellow travelers and you and I put our best efforts into the things we do, we approach Jesus’ goal for us. With every attempt, we emerge a bit more entire, a bit more compete and a bit more full-grown. Perhaps our efforts this Lent will bring us all closer to God’s plans for us. Perhaps we’ll celebrate Easter 2020 a bit more perfect in God’s hope-filled, encouraging and loving eyes.
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