Preached at Holy Sepulcher Parish on March 3, 2018 at 4:00pm Mass and March 4, 2018 at 10:30am Mass
Ben and Hannah were not the most devout or religious Jews, and like the many Catholics that only attend Mass on Christmas or Easter, they only went to the Temple once or twice a year. As they were leaving the Temple, the Rabbi said, “Ben, it would be nice to see you and your wife Hannah here at the Temple more often!”
“We don’t come as often as we should,” replied Ben, “but we make sure to keep the Ten Commandments.”
“That’s wonderful!” the Rabbi said. “It is good to keep the Commandments.”
“Yes,” Ben said proudly, “Hannah keeps six of them, and I keep the other four.”
The Commandments are more than a list of rules, a bunch of dos and don’ts, and shall and shall nots. They are so much more than a list that we read before we go to confession when we do our examination of conscience. They are meant to guide us in our relationships with God and our neighbor. Because the point of Lent and the point of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, is to draw us closer to God and to our neighbor, the Commandments can be an important part of our Lenten journey.
You will notice that there is no commandment, “Thou shall pray,” which might be surprising because prayer is so very important. Jesus prayed before every major event in the Gospels, as he began his ministry and before choosing the disciples. He prayed so long and so hard during his Passion that he bled. Prayer is to be a major part of our life, yet we are not commanded to pray. But the commandment to pray is implied in the first three commandments which apply to our relationship with God. The connection between the Commandments and our relationship with God is emphasized when God says, “I, the Lord, am your God.” God is saying, “I am all yours. I have chosen you. I want to hang out with you. I want to be a major part of your life.”
We know them as the Ten Commandments, which give them a serious and harsh tone, but the Hebrew word that we translate as “commandment” in English actually is closer in meaning to “words.” The Jewish people call them the Ten Words of God. They are not meant to be taken as a strict list of rules to follow, so much as a personal communication from God to his chosen people. Today instead of using stone tablets, God would probably send the Commandments in a text with a bunch of smiley emoticons, because they were meant to be a personal message to a friend. God wants a personal and close relationship with each one of us, and to build a relationship you have to talk with someone, write to someone, or text someone. Prayer is how we do that with God.
You will notice that there is no commandment, “Thou shall fast.” Nobody likes to fast, or do without things, especially food, desserts, or anything else that we really enjoy. Maybe you gave up TV, movies, video games, social media, or the internet for Lent this year. It can be tough to give up things or fast. It can feel like torture. But fasting is not meant to punish us, it’s meant to draw us closer to God. Fasting might not be mentioned in the Commandments, but it is certainly implied very strongly. For example, we are to have a day of rest, a Sabbath, to fast from work and rest in God. We are also supposed to not carve idols for ourselves. Now most of us have probably not carved an idol, we probably do not even own one, unless of course you picked one up as a souvenir on an island vacation. Of course, if you remember the episode of the Brady Bunch where they went to Hawaii and Greg wore an idol surfing and almost died, you can see how bad idols can be for us.
But idols are not simply carved images. Anything in our lives that keeps us from God, leaves us no time for God, or even replaces God is an idol. Each of us have them, maybe many of them. Maybe it’s our career, our schoolwork, our activities, our to do lists, or maybe even our addictions. Hopefully it’s whatever we have given up for Lent, like the TV, video games, social media, or the internet. If you have given up ice cream or chocolate for Lent, you must have been eating a whole bunch of that stuff for it to be affecting your relationship with God! As we reach the halfway point of Lent this week, we should consider fasting from those things that are keeping us from God, and spend some time with God.
The final seven Commandments deal with our relationship with our neighbor. Except for “Honor your father and mother,” they are all “shall nots”: shall not bear false witness, shall not steal, shall not covet, etc. A whole list of things not to do. It’s easy not to do something. I have a couple of cowrkers and doing nothing comes naturally to them. Do not kill. I’ve never killed anyone. You’ve probably never killed anyone. It’s easy to avoid sinning against our neighbor, we just avoid them. You can’t kill your neighbor, steal from your neighbor, lie to your neighbor, and anything else if you are not around your neighbor. But Jesus wants us to consider the Commandments as not being about avoiding our neighbor, but being with and doing something for our neighbor. Jesus asks us to approach our neighbor with love. Jesus summarized these Commandments about our relationship with others when he said, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
We often think of almsgiving as giving money to the poor or feeding them. My friend and classmate Deacon Don Pepe from St. Gregory in Zelienople runs the dinner for the poor at St. Paul’s in Butler. He had a liver transplant a week ago and although he is now home, it will be awhile until he will be able to return and help out. They will get someone to fill in for him, of course, but they can never replace him, because he doesn’t simply prepare food and serve it to the poor. He goes out and sits with them, talks with them, gets to know them, builds a relationship with them. He loves them as Jesus does. That’s what giving alms is all about. Almsgiving is any time we love our neighbor as ourselves, and the best type is personal: helping a neighbor, visiting a sick person, going on a mission trip, or talking with the poor as Deacon Don does.
Jesus’ entire life was prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. He gave his entire life serving his Father and others. He was the Word of God made flesh, not simply in name, but because he lived the Commandments, the very Words of God, each and every day of his life. He fulfilled the law and the Commandments through love.
Today’s gospel of the cleansing of the temple foreshadows his future entrance into Jerusalem for his Passion, where he would ultimately give us the ultimate gift of his own life out of love. He gave his life in alms for each and every one of us that we might live forever!
Rejoice and be glad!