Taking the Best Road

Today’s reading comes from EZ 18:21-28

Oscar Wilde once wrote that “every Saint has a past, and every sinner has a future”.  He means of course that no Saint was born freed of sin, bar the Virgin Mother, and no sinner is completely void of redemption while he remains breathing.  Ezekiel’s words in these verses tell us the same thing: repent and enjoy God’s lavish mercy and love, or sin and incur the justice of God as death and destruction.

There are two questions put forth here: can a sinner repent and what will happen to his sins, and can a just man sin and what happened to his just actions and former life lived out in justice?  Ezekiel’s answer is: if a man repents of his sins then he shall live, and if a just man sins and dies in sin then he must suffer God’s justice upon him.  Fascinatingly, Ezekiel anticipates the people’s objection: “But that’s not fair! Why should a man who lived in sin all his life be forgiven while a man who lived all his life in justice be punished for a moment of weakness?!”  To this, the Lord responds that a thing is not done that which is not finished (factum non dicitur quod non perseverat).

Our entire life-span on earth is but a journey.  While we still draw breaths we are still trotting about on this journey.  Thus, when a wayward traveler realizes that he is heading the wrong way and corrects it so that he may reach the Final Destination, he must be said as having left the mistakes behind him and he may yet reach that Final Destination given that he continues on the right path.  However, if a traveler who has been following the right path makes a wrong decision at a junction and follows the wrong path, we can in no way say that he’s going to reach the Final Destination following the erroneous path that he is on.  Further, we cannot say that the good decisions that he’s made with regards to the right paths in the past should deliver him to the Final Destination despite him being on a path that does not currently lead there.

And so because a thing is not done that which is not finished, we must always be attentive to take the best road towards the Lord.  His justice is tempered with mercy to forgive the repentant sinner, but it is insufferable for the impious.  And impiety is our own doing, not God’s.

The Lord Will Provide

Today’s reading comes from chapter C of Esther, a Septuagint addition: EST C:12, 14-16, 23-25

In ESL class in sixth grade we studied idiomatic expressions and adages.  One particular adage that caught my attention was, “there are no atheists in foxholes”.  The idea that when it comes to the final hour that a person would turn to a deity is not a perplexing one – I am Vietnamese after all, and growing up in Viet Nam everyone I knew worshiped some kind of deity.  What was interesting to me at this point was that it took people to the final hour to relinquish their wanting to control everything over to fear and thus must place hope in something they believed to be improbable or impossible.  I say this because growing up, all people I know worshiped all the time.  They entrusted everything to their deities because their simple peasantry knew instinctively what we “learned and progressive people” do not: that many things are out of their control.

Queen Esther’s prayer to YHWH in this reading ought to remind us Christians of one very crucial bit of our faith: our deliverance and very salvation is reliant upon the grace of the Ever Living God.  And if we can (and must) entrust the Lord with our lives and our salvation, we must also entrust to the Lord every facet of our lives.  It would be silly for a manager to trust someone who reports to him with a very important task, but not trust him with a mundane and minute one.  Christ reminds us of this in Luke’s Gospel: “Do not worry about your life, as to what you will eat; nor for your body, as to what you will put on. “For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. “Consider the ravens, for they neither sow nor reap; they have no storeroom nor barn, and yet God feeds them; how much more valuable you are than the birds!”

Let us trust the Lord with everything that we are and everything that we have.

Happy Thursday of the first week of Lent, friends!

Imitating Jonah and the Ninevites

Today’s reading comes from JON 3:1-10

There are two phrases I that find quite disturbing in the English language and they are: ‘necessary evil’ and ‘the lesser evil’.  These phrases are often used to justify an evil action by looking toward some future good that the current evil action can produce.  For me, these are the kind of policies that the prince of darkness employs in order to ruin our call to holiness.  God’s policy contrasts to this: He works to extract what goodness there is left in the evil already done by extending His mercy towards the repentant.  This is how the wisdom of God differs so drastically from the slyness of the Devil.

The story of Jonah is a story of the failure of a prophet and success of a sinning nation.  Jonah is a prophet, and while we might see a resemblance of him to Moses, Jeremiah, and Isaiah insofar as he protests his calling, we are quickly directed towards his complete disregard for what God wants and acts according to his own will.  Moses, Jeremiah, and Isaiah may have deemed themselves unworthy and protested initially against their callings, they nevertheless took up their tasks.  Jonah, on the other hand, not only protests but attempts to run from his calling: the Lord directed him to go east to Nineveh and he took a ship west to Tarshish (Jon. 1:3).  The reason for his protest and flee is revealed near the end of the book: he doesn’t want Nineveh to be saved; he wants the people to be destroyed for their sins.

Jonah’s flee can provide us with two fascinating conclusions.  First, in answering the sailors as to who he is, Jonah reveals that he is a Hebrew and worships YHWH.  Yet, the irony is that while his tongue confesses his faith in God, the feet are busy disobeying Him.  Second, Jonah understands the basics of Israel’s profession of faith in God—that God is just and merciful—but he also wants to confine its applicability only to the chosen nation.  This of course is ironic since Jonah confesses that God is Lord over all Heaven and earth.

What is fascinating about God’s mercy as justice in the book of Jonah is that it is extended to the Ninevites, a group of Assyrians who were Israel and Judah’s enemies.  After all, it was Assyria who conquered Israel and exiled the people; it was also Assyria that laid siege to Jerusalem and wasted Judah’s forty-six cities.  Surely it could not be these enemies that God wants to be saved—and such was Jonah’s thought.  Yet, what emerges from these events is a God whose justice was dealt out as mercy when upon hearing Jonah’s “forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” the king of Nineveh and his subjects all repented.   True to Jonah’s profession that God’s sovereignty is universal, the Lord extends His mercy even to the enemies of Israel.  Yet, God’s mercy is not lavished indiscriminately; God’s mercy is given in response to true repentance.

Lastly, YHWH’s justice is tempered by His slow to anger.  God’s slow to anger is expressed by Jonah in his response to God in 4:2, and this is the reason why Nineveh was not destroyed sooner and given a chance to repent.  If it was up to Jonah, he would have had God’s justice swift and becoming when sin and disobedience have happened.  Ironically, Jonah could not see that he would have received some form of punishment for his disobedience when directed to head to Nineveh by YHWH.  Thus, when tempered by slow to anger, both Jonah and Nineveh enjoyed justice as it is poured forth in accordance with the divine will.

Let us then imitate both Jonah and the Ninevites in our repentance in approaching the Lord.  Humility begins when we accept our own shortcomings and allow the Lord to interiorly renovate us.

Happy Wednesday of the first week of Lent, friends.

Trusting God with Our Lives

Today’s reading comes from IS 55:10-11

Faith is more than just trust, but trust is an inherent and paramount dimension of faith.  The entirety of the Old Testament text recalls moments of fidelity and moments of infidelity from the Israelites to YHWH and His enduring faithfulness to them.  When the Israelites trusted YHWH they flourished, and when they did not they suffered.  Here, Isaiah reminds us that whatever suffering they endured was not because of YHWH’s unfaithfulness to His word; rather, they suffered because they did not keep their promises to Him.  Whatever YHWH promised He will do for the Israelites, He did.  Was it not Him who delivered them from Babylon as promised?

What about His promise to us in the new covenant?  There is no doubt that His promise has been fulfilled.  He promised us freedom from the slavery of sin and death.  He has kept His promise: he exchanged his tears from this freedom; he paid the ransom with his flesh and sinew; he bought us this freedom with his very own body.  As for us, we must learn to trust in Him.  Trusting in YHWH requires that we have no backup plans like the Israelites who worshipped YHWH but also Baal and Asherah for needs that they think YHWH might not be able to provide.  Trusting in God means that even the very fundamental thing we need for living – our daily bread – is something we ask Him to provide.

Happy Tuesday of the first week of Lent, friends.

Taking the Other Seriously

Today’s reading comes from LV 19:1-2, 11-18

Too often do modern Christians, along with modern critics of Christianity, focus on one facet of the law of love for neighbor that they completely ignore the other.  Take for instance this verse from the passage:

You shall not bear hatred for your brother in your heart.
Though you may have to reprove him,
do not incur sin because of him.
Take no revenge and cherish no grudge against your fellow countrymen.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.
I am the LORD.”

What we immediately hone in on is the second to last bit when YHWH directs the Israelites to “love your neighbor as yourself.”  But what about the first part of that commandment – the bolded part?  What about the part when YHWH is telling the people that there is a time when it is necessary to tell another person that s/he is sinning?  Or, and this is more interesting, that by not reproving our brothers and sisters in their sinning that we incur sin because love demands that we take them serious enough to help them become holy.

Let us then not forget this very first part of that commandment.  It is important for us to remember that if we love others as we do ourselves that we would correct them in their mistakes.  The mistake, of course, is to think that in reprimanding the one we love, we hate him or her.  But this is silly.  Just as we do not literally hate ourselves after we realized we had made a mistake, and yet we also reprove ourselves so that we can act differently in the future under the same circumstance; it is therefore also necessary that loving others like we love ourselves demands the same approach.

Charity precludes hostility, maliciousness, a spirit of revenge-seeking, and bearing grudges; but it also precludes indifferentism and relativism.  Love, St. Thomas tells us, means willing the good of the other as other, and this willing this good will require us to take them seriously enought to tell them what’s bad.

Happy Monday of the first week of Lent, friends.

Fasting For God or For Me?

Today’s reading comes from IS 58:1-9A

Fasting is an ancient discipline, and one that Israel took up order to show YHWH their faithfulness.  But this passage gives us a glimpse of the hypocritical attitude that the Israelites had when it came to fasting.  They supposedly fasted for YHWH, but they were unhappy when He took no notice of their fasting – an act, instead of offering as a gift, they considered a mighty service they were providing the Divine.  They charged YHWH with impartiality when He found no pleasure in their fasting.

Isaiah does not mince his words here.  They afflicted themselves but sought no relieve for those who were afflicted.  They fasted in order to provide an external image of discipline and love for YHWH, but their interiority was filled with disorder and chaos.  Yes, they performed the right “acts”, but they persisted in their sins.  They demanded forgiveness by YHWH, and yet provided no forgiveness of their own to others.  They fasted in order to accuse others of not fasting, rather than fasting for themselves.  This was their hypocrisy and YHWH hated it: “You cannot fast as you do today, and expect your voices to be heard from on high.”

And so Isaiah’s words here should provide us with a good measure for our own Lenten practices.  Why are we doing the things that we are doing?  Or why are we giving up the things that we are giving up?  Is it so that we can change, or is it so that others may take notice?  Are we doing it for the sake of growth in our own relationship with the Lord, or is it for our own benefit?  This is a matter between each person and God, and God is one who knows the depths of every heart so let us pray that when the Lord finds our hearts that he may be pleased with our fasting and prayer.

Happy Friday after Ash Wednesday, friends.

Waiting For God

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The advent season has arrived this past Sunday with the liturgical readings themed around anticipation.  As I sat in Mass listening to our pastor preached on waiting with anticipation I thought of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.

In Waiting for Godot, we have Vladimir and Estragon waiting with anticipation for someone by the name of Godot.  The two are somewhat absent-minded, and are even unsure if they are at the right place to meet Godot when he comes.  Vladimir and Estragon pass the time by doing the most mundane of things, like take off a shoe and then putting it back on again.  Waiting for Godot consists of two acts and in each act Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for Godot.  At the end of each act a boy comes to them and tells them that Mr. Godot sends word that he is unable to make it today, but he will make it tomorrow.  One could reasonably assume that if there is a third act, that Vladimir and Estragon will still be passing time with mundane activities while waiting for Godot, who will send word that he will come tomorrow but doesn’t show up.

As we work through Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, we get a sense of longing, of deep desire, for Godot.  The longing is so deep that it feels natural to Vladimir and Estragon, so much so that they do not realize that they’re spending their entire days doing absolutely nothing but waiting for Godot, only to have to wait another day when the boy shows up late in the day to inform them that Godot can’t make it.  I suspect that this sense of profound longing is the very same kind that our hearts have for God.  The Psalmist expresses this longing with intensity: “O God, You are my God; I shall seek You earnestly; My soul thirsts for You, my flesh yearns for You, In a dry and weary land where there is no water.” (Ps 63:1) or “I stretch out my hands to You; My soul longs for You, as a parched land.” (Ps 143:6)

And so like Vladimir and Estragon, we must wait.  We must be patient and recognize that God will come to us in His own time and not when we have decided for Him to come.

Happy Advent, my friends!