I am a good person, right? I mean I do not murder, or steal, or commit any REALLY big sins, do I? So why do bad things happen to me? Since I aim to be a good person, why don’t you notice and DO something about it, God? Why do I have to experience these bad things? I mean, c’mon, I am really doing something here? I mean, look at what I am doing for Lent, after all?
In today’s first reading, the request is not the interior change of the heart, but rather being noticed for doing something good, even though it makes no real change in the way people live. The problem is that nothing really changes in spite of the fast. People “go about their own pursuits” and rather than bringing out the presence of God more fully, what happens is that there is more fighting and quarreling. Sound familiar?
It has been noted that Lent is not about the exterior, but the interior. If we do not focus on the interior conversion of our hearts, then the sinful actions we find ourselves doing will not change. Our Lenten penance is not magic. It is not the case that we can do a little something, take the route of the bare minimum, and have our voices heard by God. The gift of grace has little effect if we do not receive God in our hearts.
Too often we can be tempted to do little and expect much. We want a stronger relationship with Jesus, but often do not what to do the things that put us in a place for this relationship. We want to be a saint, but often we do not want to do any of the things the great saints desire. We want to help the poor as long as we do not have to interact with the poor. We want to become more patient with others as long as we do not need to exercise patience.
I am certainly not suggesting that the exterior things we do are meaningless. But we cannot stop only at the exterior things we do. Lent is a strong call to make the deep interior changes. And we can do this! We can focus on what gets in the way of our relationship with Jesus. We can make a little time for silent prayer. We can make small sacrifices so that selfishness gets taken away. We can go without so that we can give away more of what we save.
In a lot of ways what tempts us to remain superficial is the alternative, and the alternative is quite difficult. It is easier to give up chocolate than it is to release those bound unjustly. It is easier to go without a Coke than it is to set free the oppressed. It is easier to get off social media for a while than it is to “share your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless.” It is easier to do the small external thing than it is to change our hearts in a way that we clothe “the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.”
Lent is about paying attention to the inside. To recognize what we need to change so that God may more fully and fully dwell inside of us. It is to recognize that we need to reflect on our motives. Do we want to change, or do we simply want credit for trying? Is it time we need to examine what keeps us from the kind of relationship with Jesus we wish to have? Do we want to allow Jesus to change us, or do we simply want to have that social relationship that makes us look good in front of others?
Today’s gospel tells us that Jesus is everything. We need to embrace the reality that Jesus loves us more than we can possibly understand. We need to embrace that wherever we are in our spiritual life, this deep and fulfilling relationship with Jesus is not only possible, but also real if we let it happen. In the presence of Jesus we have all we need. And when we take on the challenging sacrifice to pray, to fast and to give, we are able to see Jesus every more clearly in our lives. Today we are very much challenged to examine our lives, and to know that when we are in the presence of Jesus, that is really all we need.