Thursday of the second week in Lent

Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord,
    whose trust is the Lord.
He is like a tree planted by water,
    that sends out its roots by the stream,
And does not fear when heat comes,
    for its leaves remain green,
And is not anxious in the year of drought,
    for it does not cease to bear fruit.
The heart is deceitful above all things,
    and desperately corrupt;
who can understand it?
“I, the Lord, search the mind,
    and try the heart,
to give every man according to his ways,
    according to the fruit of his doings.”
                                                   Jeremiah 17: 7-10
There was a rich man, who was clothed in purple and fine linen, and who feasted sumptuously every day. And at his gate lay a poor man named Lazarus, full of sores, who desired to be fed with what fell from the rich man’s table; moreover the dogs came and licked his sores. The poor man died and was carried by the angels to Abraham’s bosom. The rich man also died and was buried; and in Hades, being in torment, he lifted up his eyes, and saw Abraham far off and Lazarus in his bosom.
                                                   Luke 17: 19-23
Abba Isidore of Pelusia said, “The desire for possessions is dangerous and terrible, knowing no satiety; it drives the soul, which it controls, to the heights of evil. Therefore let us drive it away vigorously from the beginning. For once it has become master, it cannot be overcome.”
*           *          *
“The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt”—so Jeremiah reminds us, and in the next line also reminds us that there is One who really knows our heart and mind, who is not taken in by out deceit of ourselves and others. God searches the mind and tries the heart, and this is what we plead, with the psalmist (Ps 139: 23-24), for the Lord to do. To open our hearts to God is to trust in God’s grace and mercy. For we know that the Lord is likely to find some wicked way in us, we (if we are honest) cannot rid ourselves completely from “hidden faults.” Rather, we ask God to seek them out, because God knows us fully and sees through all our ruses; and, knowing that God will find our faults, we ask forgiveness.
So, whatever does that have to do with the desire for possessions? The rich man Jesus describes lives the life of one whose possessions and wealth are his strength. At first glance, maybe, the wealthy man might look like the “tree planted by water” that continues to bear fruit; as the psalmist (Psalm 1) says of one like this, “everything he does prospers.” The prosperous one must be God’s favorite; if God cared for Lazarus, why leave him to suffer? To that question there are no good answers. But as a parable, the story of Lazarus and the rich man tells us something about what Lazarus and the rich man have to offer each other. What the rich man can give (or could have, in life, given) to Lazarus is fairly obvious: the poor man requires basic care, especially food and probably medical attention. We are not used to thinking about what the utterly destitute have to offer, but Lazarus has something to give the purple-clad feaster (who is never named), and also to us: a way out. Lazarus offers a way out of the choke-hold the desire for possessions has on us, and awakens us out of our complacency. We may have convinced ourselves that we have what we need, and not much more. We may believe that we are giving all we can.
But then, there’s Lazarus, asking for a handout, desperate. There’s Lazarus, in need of help. There’s Lazarus, showing us the Crucified (who also, by the way, “died and was buried”). Lazarus reveals the distance between our prosperity and the poverty of the Word made flesh. Lazarus focuses the light of truth on the deceitful heart, God’s own searchlight. And our response to Lazarus makes plain the extent to which we have been blinded by the desire for possessions of which Abba Isidore speaks.

What, then, are we to do? Sometimes it seems that the best solution is to give it all away, perhaps to join a religious community. After all, the desert mothers and fathers extol the virtues of possessing nothing. For most of us, though, it is slightly more complicated than that. People (often our children) depend on us to care for them; we have woven ourselves into social and financial fabrics that cannot simply be unravelled. Our lives are bound up with the lives of others in such a way that makes giving it all away seem irresponsible rather than faithful. We have to find out where the desire for possessions threatens our soul, and we are not (Jeremiah has said) the best people for that job. Prayer and direction, openness to god and to others seems the only way to get free from the economic and social stranglehold. Who are we? Are we those who walk by Lazarus in our gate? Or do we live with our doors, our hearts and our hands open to those in need—and so also open to the Lord, the giver of all good things?

I believe; help my unbelief.

Saturday after Ash Wednesday

If you remove the yoke from your midst,
The pointing of the finger,
      and speaking of wickedness,
And if you give yourself to the hungry,
And satisfy the desire of the afflicted,
Then your light will rise in darkness,
And your gloom will become like midday.
And the Lord will continually guide you,
And satisfy your desire in scorched places,
And give strength to your bones;
And you will be like a watered garden,
And like a spring of water
       whose waters do not fail.
                                                       Isaiah 58:9-11 (NASB)

Incline your ear, O Lord,
     and answer me;
For I am afflicted and needy.
Do preserve my soul,
     for I am a godly man;
O my God, save your servant
     who trusts in you.
Be gracious to me, O Lord,
For to you I cry all day long.
Make glad the soul of your servant,
For to you O Lord,
      I lift up my soul.
                                                      Psalm 86: 1- 4 (NASB)

.          .         .

Isaiah 58 is so beautiful that I almost want just to type it over again, and more of it. What can I possibly say in addition to ‘the mouth of the Lord’? Or I might just add the passage from Matthew’s gospel that tells of the calling of Levi, and concludes with Jesus’ explanation that he came ‘not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.’ Today’s Mass readings are rich, and in some ways quite straightforward: God calls us to receive his mercy. Sinners need it, and the psalmist prays for it. God also calls us to be merciful. So Isaiah reminds us, in the loveliest prose.

That might, though, leave us thinking that we receive mercy and then give it. Maybe (I am sure sometimes this is my unconscious supposition) we should be full before we give–satisfied by God’s mercy, we show that mercy to others. But Isaiah suggests that it doesn’t work that way. Isaiah calls us to ‘satisfy the desire of the afflicted’ from the discomfort of our ‘scorched places’ and in the frailty of our weak bones. The ‘spring of water’ is not what we are before we attend to the needy, but is what God makes in us as we do.

I find this a very hard saying. With four young children–including a toddler and a girl with Down Syndrome who’s just about to enter adolescence–and a challenging job as a lecturer in a theological college, I often feel stretched pretty thin. Usually I feel more like an empty pail than a spring of water. Can I refuse to meditate on my emptiness, and look for the ‘hungry’ and the ‘afflicted’ (‘look out … for the interests of others’ says Philippians 2.4!)? Maybe. Maybe that is what it is, concretely, to ‘lift up my soul’ to the Lord, to trust in God for my help, my strength, and my satisfaction.

Whether I find myself able or not, it seems like Lent is a good time to try.

Deo gratias.