Sometimes I am tempted to do the bare minimum. I look to see just how little I can do and still be able to count something as having been done. As a child, there was the question about how late (or how early) one could leave Mass and still be able to say it counted that you had attended Mass. Was it by the opening prayer? The first reading? The gospel? (We always concluded the gospel was the absolute latest we could arrive.)
The same type of question can arise when the question is about what gets defined as meat. Or, sometimes the question can arise when we conclude that lobster is fine for a penitential Friday during Lent. What about alligator? Does that count as meat? If I have a high-priced seafood dinner (maybe surf without the turf) does that fulfill the obligation to abstain from meat?
It is for this reason that we discuss fulfilling the letter of the law (yes, it seems lobster does not count as meat) but not the spirit (an act of penance designed to help me share in the suffering of Jesus). These types of minimalistic interpretations of the law happen when we see the law as something that restricts us. If I am feeling that the purpose of abstaining from meat on Friday is to limit my freedom, then it is not difficult to imagine that I might become okay with eating lobster because of the letter of the law. I found a loophole.
But is this really the purpose of Lent? Is it really the case that the purpose of the law is to limit our freedom? Or, is it the case that when we follow the law, not only in the letter but also in the spirit, that we become more free? In other words, what if the purpose of God’s law was to increase our true freedom?
It is in this spirit, then, that we should hear the words of Jesus in today’s gospel. “Jesus said to his disciples: “You have heard that it was said, You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies, and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your heavenly Father.” If we followed the letter of the law, we would be okay just loving our neighbors and hating our enemies. It would be enough for us, and be easier for us to hate our enemies. But Jesus is suggesting that the real relationship with God, the real relationship that makes us children of God our Father is not to hate anyone. In fact, we should love our enemies, and we should pray for them. How hard is that?
But that is really the point. To love only our neighbors, those who are good to us, there is not difficulty in that. It is easy. People with no faith at all are able to do that. The real test of grace is when we can do what is not just the minimum, but is indeed something that requires God’s grace to accomplish. It is not easy to love enemies or to pray for them. The sign that we have accepted the grace of God is that we can act as Jesus does.
What do I mean? Well, when we sin, we reject Jesus. In a way, we become an enemy of Jesus. But, what does Jesus do? Does he condemn us to hell for all eternity? No. If we are contrite and desire to repent, he will forgive us. He loves us even in our sin. (He hates the sin, but not us, the sinner.) And so when he tells us to love our enemies and to pray for our persecutors, he is asking us to be like him.
And that is the purpose of Lent. We are to strive to become more like Jesus in all we do. We give something up, not for the minimal sake of it, but because in doing so we seek to strive to imitate Jesus even more in our lives. We seek to become like him. That is what our Lenten practices are all about. We pray to enter more fully into relationship with him. We fast, or sacrifice, in order to make Jesus more and more of a priority. And we give alms, in order to become more generous with all the blessings we have received. So do not settle for the minimum, but rather seek for the many ways you can enter more deeply into that life-giving relationship with Jesus.