Thursday, 1 March 2018

Lent Week 2 Thursday

Readings: Jeremiah 17:5-10; Psalm 1; Luke 16:19-31

There is a sting in the tail of both readings today. At first sight they seem very familiar and easy to receive. There is the beautiful image in Jeremiah of the tree planted by the side of the water, an image repeated in the psalm. The man who looks to the Lord is like such a tree compared with the one who puts his trust in the powers and values of this passing world, and who finds himself withering at the root, trying to survive in a parched land. There is the story of the rich man and Lazarus, which seems to repeat the same moral: trust not in the wealth of this passing world but in the true riches which are to be found in heaven with God.

The sting in the tail of the first reading is the sudden reflection on the perversity of the human heart: tortuous, beyond remedy, who can understand it? In other translations the heart is devious above all things and desperately corrupt. So the beautiful comparison presented earlier in the reading, the contrast between the tree planted by the water and the tree trying to flourish in the desert, which seems like an easy and obvious choice, is not so easily pursued, considering the perversity of the heart.

The sting in the tail of the gospel reading is the curious comment that if people do not believe what is given to them in the scriptures, neither will they believe it if someone were to rise from the dead. And it seems to amount to the same thing. It is easy to understand the choice you are facing, not so easy to make that choice and to persevere in it.

Lent is a time to think again about the mystery of sin. We can use the word 'mystery' advisedly: sin is a theological reality, an evaluation of human thoughts, words, actions and omissions in the light of God's holiness. The Bible presents us with two main traditions about sin and they remain accurate descriptions of our experience of this mystery.

On the one hand sin is something deliberately chosen, a human choice, made with awareness and freedom, choosing what is evil in preference to what is good. We should be grown up enough to accept responsibility for such things and to ask forgiveness for them.

On the other hand there is something mysterious about sin, which is a power at work in us and through us while not being completely under our control. It is connected with desire and the distortions of desire. It is connected with the phantasies that inevitably arise in the human mind and that are the roots of the deadly sins: pride and envy, lust and anger, gluttony and covetousness, sloth and vainglory. It is the power which Paul catalogues along with the Law and Death as the enemies of humankind, sin crouching at the door, disturbing our thinking and our choosing so that we end up doing the evil we do not want to do.

The choice is clear enough: sink your roots by the water's edge and flourish or go off into the wilderness and perish, put your trust in the Lord and the riches he promises and not in this world's wealth and power. It is more difficult to make the right choice and to stay with it. Desire, addiction, humiliation, fear, the complexities of the heart and its waywardness - all of this is always present also, nudging and pulling us, distracting and paralysing us.

Clearly we need to pray ever more urgently for the grace of conversion, a conversion established not on the strength of our own feeble efforts but one that comes as a gift from God, a compelling and life-changing encounter with His goodness, an encounter already available to us in the words of the Scriptures. If we do not listen to Moses and the prophets neither will we be persuaded even if someone were to rise from the dead. The devious heart would quickly find another explanation for it and return to its sad self-absorption.

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