Strange as it may seem, it is very difficult for many of us to accept gifts. When we do receive them, we feel compelled to reciprocate in kind. We often believe that we must earn what we get. Perhaps we do not want to be beholden to others, or we are convinced that we do not deserve any such gift. Or maybe we want to be assured that what is ours is really ours, with no strings attached.
In a slightly different vein, we are also convinced that we must make up time lost at school or at work. There is a certain level of performance that is expected by us and by others, and we are bound to meet it and, if possible, to exceed it. Too often we gauge our worth by the quality of our accomplishments.
These attitudes often carry over into our understanding of our faith, particularly during Lent. We perceive this season as a time to make amends, to perform acts of devotion that will balance the scales. This is quite futile, because we will really never be able to balance the scales. And if we look carefully at the readings for Lent, we will discover that God does not require this of us. The readings all through the season show us that salvation is a gift from God, not a reward earned.
All the first readings on the Sundays of Lent recount episodes from Israel’s history that show God’s graciousness to the people. The passages from the epistles all highlight the role Christ played in our salvation. The Gospel readings reveal Jesus’ glory even in the face of suffering, as well as the compassion and mercy of God. Any call to repentance is only indirect. The readings assure us how much God has loved us. Their message is: Be grateful; trust in God; and, if necessary, reform your life.
Today’s reading from Deuteronomy is one of the most important creedal statements in the First Testament. It describes God’s initial call to Abraham and God’s graciousness in delivering the Israelite people. They turned to God in their need, and God saved them from bondage in Egypt. The sacrifice they offered was one of thanksgiving for God’s goodness, not one of reparation. The psalm also proclaims God’s protection and assistance of those in need. There is no quid pro quo here, no “You do this and I’ll do that.” God’s goodness is pure gift.
Paul insists on the same point. He argues that it is not good works that save us, but faith or openness to God. He must have startled his audience when he declared that membership in the Jewish community gave one no advantage. This should startle us as well. It is not membership in the “right” religious group, but genuine faith that justifies us.
The Gospel recounts the temptations of Jesus. Many commentators maintain that these represent some of the prominent messianic expectations of his day. The people believed that the messiah would feed the hungry, or release the nation from the domination of others, or call on the extraordinary power of God to perform miracles. These were all admirable deeds in themselves; they still are today. Who would not want to see that the hungry are well fed, or that people are granted self-determination? Who would not want to demonstrate the marvelous power of God? But why are these good works presented here as temptations? Might it be that Jesus is challenged to perform them for the wrong reasons? It seems that real temptation is often subtle, not obvious; and we too are frequently tempted to do good things, but for the wrong reasons or in inappropriate ways.
In the face of each temptation, Jesus reminds the tempter that the heart of righteousness is commitment to God, not the performance of marvelous deeds. Jesus will indeed eventually feed the hungry, deliver the people from bondage and demonstrate the marvelous power of God. But he will accomplish these feats in God’s good time and in a manner that will please God, not the crowds. Jesus never bargained for results.
What do these readings tell us about Lent? They show no interest in what we can do for God, but in what God has already done for us. They call us, not to repent of our sins, but to open our hearts to God in faith. Even the account of Jesus’ temptations underplays the significance of great feats of devotion, and instead emphasizes the importance of fidelity to God’s promptings in life.
This is not to say that penance is out of place during Lent. Quite the contrary. Still, whatever penances we take on should enable us to recommit ourselves to God, who has been so gracious to us. They should strengthen our faith and trust in God, and not reassure us that we have paid our debts. They should open our eyes to the fact that God is indeed our refuge and our fortress, the one in whom we can trust for our salvation.