Are You Looking For a Covenant or an Escape Clause?
I often begin with a joke, but unfortunately this one is true. I was looking through the paper the other day and came across one of those “what's the world coming to” stories that they throw in, but the snippet that they wrote under the headline drew my attention. The story was of a Missouri real estate agent who is fairly prominent in her community near Saint Louis. She took out a fifteen hundred dollar murder-for-hire contract on her former mother-in-law, apparently over some disagreements with visitation rights with her children. Of course, this is appalling enough, but what struck me especially hard is what she told the undercover police when they made sure that she was not being misunderstood. She was recorded by officials who reported, "[she] stated specially that she knew as a Christian it was wrong, but she could ask for forgiveness. "[https://www.stltoday.com/news/local/crime-and-courts/well-known-lake-of-the-ozarks-realtor-charged-with-conspiracy-in-murder-for-hire-plot/article_7e9fa87d-566a-5f58-8b66-691f51d3e7c5.html]
This an example a phenomenon which is growing across the Western world: people who are cultural Christians but who do not truly practice the faith. We live in a predominantly Christian nation, we are exposed to Christian values and religious events from childhood, and we identify ourselves as Christians. But many do so in the same way that we identify ourselves as an American or South Carolinian, or as a fan of a particular sports team or singer. In other words, it is a way of identifying how we wish to portray ourselves to the world, but does not carry any particular commitment on our part to behave in any way that we don't want to. We could compare it to a school that we graduate from: we take pride in having gone to this high school or that college, but that fact doesn’t carry with it any obligation to do anything in particular.
Today’s readings are in direct contradiction to this way of thinking. The Old Testament readings so far this Lenten season have been about God's covenants with His people. Today, the prophet Jeremiah tells us that God will write his law on our hearts. If we are His people, therefore, we know what we must do to live up to our end of the promise. While we might still be tempted and even fail to live up to that promise, it would make the sin so much more grievous to expect that even if I don't live up to my end of the bargain, I expect God to live up to His. This would make a mockery of what we will say in just a few minutes in the Lord's Prayer: “Thy will be done.”
The second reading, from the letter to the Hebrews, tells us exactly how we should act when we are followers of Christ: “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered” [Hebrews 5:8 NABRE]. Jesus was human, and Jesus therefore suffered as we all do. But rather than let His suffering become an excuse for why He should be allowed to turn from the ways of God, He learned, as we should, the discipline of obedience. The word disciple and discipline come from the Latin root meaning to learn. Jesus turned suffering into a learning experience, thereby demonstrating a reverence for God and not wallowing in resentment that life wasn't everything that it could possibly be in an ideal world.
The Gospel also makes the same point: “Whoever serves me must follow me, and where I am, there also will my servant be” [John 12:26 NABRE]. A true disciple who has learned the will of God will follow the lead of Christ, and will do what the Father commands, that is love of God and love of neighbor. One who serves their own self-interest and does evil does not serve God. The woman in the news story was not serving God: she knew what she wanted was evil, but was doing it anyway. Her request for forgiveness afterward would not have been true repentance but a request that God condone her act. She resents her situation with her former mother-in-law and therefore loses her reverence for God and her baptismal commitment to serve Him and His body the Church.
There was a famous admiral in the US Navy named Grace Hopper. She was involved in developing the first computers after World War Two, turning her mathematical genius to work for her country during the Cold War. I remember as a kid watching her on television in a 60 Minutes interview and being fascinated by her and all that she said, but one thing she said has stuck with me. She said, “It's easier to ask forgiveness than it is to get permission” [https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Grace_Hopper]. What she was talking about was navigating through a bureaucratic world of government and the military and not making a theological statement. By all accounts Admiral Hopper was highly decorated and a very ethical person, but it seems to me that many people take this same philosophy and turn it on its head, using it to justify sinful behavior with the knowledge that our God is one of forgiveness and mercy, and therefore turn Him into a doting parent who will look past the ways of a bad child. Before doing something they ask not, “what is right,” but instead, “what can I get away with.”
As we progress through this Lenten season, we should examine how we make our decisions, and see if we make them because they are right in the eyes of God or if they are only to get us something we want. The mercy of God is a backup plan, a Plan B, when we fail in our discipleship, not a Plan A to enable use to thwart punishment deserved. One is the discipleship of Christ, one is the discipleship of Satan. We have all been there, treating Christ not as our role model and leader but as an insurance agent, there to save us from our sinful ways that we don't want to give up.
We should all partake of the Sacrament of Penance, especially during the preparatory seasons of Lent and Advent. This is the necessary Plan B for when we have failed. During the Act of Contrition, we say words to this effect: “I firmly intend, with your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin.” The words may vary, as there are multiple acceptable versions of this prayer, but the determination to do right going forward must be present for the true forgiveness of sins to be effected. This should be part of our Easter preparations to conform our lives to our Christian covenant, to live up to our end of the agreement.
As we continue with the Liturgy of the Eucharist, let the Body of Christ sustain us to persevere in the ways of justice, mercy, and peace and keep us from having to ask for forgiveness. We aim to be a community of joyful disciples, and through this act of communion we come together as a church to the altar to be one with God and each other, to act as God asks and to be always in His favor. The psalm we heard earlier had a wonderful plea to God that we would do well to say after we ask for forgiveness, that we would try to do better going forward: “A clean heart create for me, O God, and a steadfast spirit renew within me” [Psalm 51:12].