1st Sunday of Lent
February 21, 2010
An obese man went to the doctor. He was diagnosed of having high levels of cholesterol, blood sugar and hypertension. He was strongly advised to avoid all kinds of meat and fatty foods. Instead he has to change his diet to fish and vegetables. To help him remember his diet, the doctor said: “Only eat the food that knows how to swim.” Back in the house, he was seen by neighbors in his swimming pool with a pig. “What are you doing with that animal in the pool?” asked his surprised neighbors. He answered, “I am teaching this pig to swim.”
A Jewish man lives into a Catholic neighborhood. Every Friday he drives the Catholics crazy because, while the Catholics are eating fish, the Jew is outside barbecuing steak. The mouth-watering smell is making their abstinence excruciating. So the Catholics decide to work on the Jew to convert him to Catholicism. Finally, after many threats and much pleading, the Catholics succeed. They take the Jew to a priest who baptizes the Jew and afterwards says, “Born a Jew, raised a Jew, now a Catholic.” The Catholics are very happy. No more tempting smells of barbecue every Friday evening. But the next Friday evening, the familiar aroma of barbecue fills the air again. The Catholics all rush to the Jew’s house to remind him of the obligation of abstinence. They see him standing over the cooking steak. He is sprinkling water on the meat and saying, “Born a cow, raised a cow, now a fish.”
These two stories illustrate how we can sometimes be stubborn to the point of being ridiculous. We would justify it by saying, “If there’s will, there’s a way.” This is determination, we would say. But there is a thin line between determination and foolhardiness. Coupled by selfish ambition, this converts into the deadly “by-hook-or-by-crook” mentality and attitude.
This is precisely what sin is all about. Sin is essentially disobedience to God. This is brought about mainly by trusting in one’s own power, on insisting in our own plans and desires. The temptations employed by the devil show this. In essence, the devil was tempting Jesus to use his own powers and to follow his own plan rather than relying on the Father’s wisdom and power.
Jesus was hungry after forty days and nights of fasting. He can eat in the normal way, and there is nothing wrong with eating. But the devil proposes the faster and easier way: turn stones into bread. In effect, he was trying to convince Jesus to rely on his own power and disregard the natural course of nourishment designed by God. But Jesus said no: “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.”
Next, the devil showed Jesus the vast empires of the world, but with the condition that he will bow down to worship the devil. Although Jesus is God, and he has full dominion over the entire universe, yet he has to complete his mission first, and that entails suffering and dying on the cross. There is a quick and painless way out, and that is to kneel before the devil and the world is his. But Jesus chose to follow the Father’s will and the way of the cross. He effectively rebuked the devil: “You shall worship the Lord your God and Him alone shall you serve!”
Finally, the devil used the temptation of vanity and pride. Jesus can throw himself down from the top of the Temple and he will not be hurt because, by his own power, he can summon the angels to catch him. If he does this, he can immediately be popular, people will readily believe his teachings and he will not be questioned by the authorities. But Jesus did not use his own power to advance any agenda of self-glorification. He chose the way of humility and hiddenness in obedience to the Father’s will.
Trusting in one’s own power makes one proud and self-sufficient. Then it becomes very easy and convenient to disregard and disobey God. This is what we see in the world now. When a person becomes wealthy, he has the power to turn stones into bread. He won’t see the need to pray and ask God for help. When one has political power, he can give the command and people follow him. He won’t need to kneel down before God and ask for power and permission. When one is popular and famous, people adore him; they call and chant his name. People worship him, so he need not worship God.
However, the painful and shocking lessons eventually come. The global financial meltdown has taught us that financial power is limited and fragile. Political power over peoples and nations will last only until the next elections or coup d’état. Fame and vanity suddenly vanish into oblivion as shown in the faded glory and ignominy of many famous movie stars and sports heroes. Jeremiah made this clear in the first reading last Sunday: “Cursed is the one who trusts in human beings, who seeks his strength in flesh; blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord.”
God alone does not fail. God alone has no end. To trust in God is the best thing we can ever do. Let us reject the temptation to trust in our own power and resources. Let us call on Jesus who said: “I am the vine you are the branches; apart from me you can do nothing.” In Jesus we have the assurance of final victory and eternal salvation.
Fr. Mike Lagrimas
St. Teresa Church
New York, NY 10002