One of the things that amazes me about our faith is something that at first might seem paradoxical, but on closer examination is really a perfect fit. It’s the fact that even while we rely on and reap the fruits of several millenia of promise, covenant, and truth — all of which are infinitely immutable and reliable — we also come back to this table of Word and Sacrament to constant renewal and refreshment.
Some of my earliest memories are of my mother reading aloud or quoting some of her favorite Scriptures. She loved Luke’s Nativity story above all else, but among her other favorites were Matt. 9:24 — “I believe, Lord; help my unbelief!” and Luke 2:19, where “Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart.” She would sometimes reflect aloud on these verses, and I remember that her reflections were always a little different. It was many, many years before I really understood that those differences arose at least in part to new insights that she experienced when she revisited those verses.
For much of my life, my religious practices (when I was practicing any religion at all) involved little or no Bible study. Although I was fascinated with a biblical theology course I took during my first pass at a college education, I didn’t follow through. Of course, through all those years, I heard God’s Word proclaimed in church and sermonized from any number of pulpits. When I returned to the Church, though, I felt as though the Bible had been rediscovered — perhaps even “reinvented,” in a way — while I was away. Bible study groups and classes have become a mainstay of parish life, and it is both easy and fascinating to get caught up in studying and reflecting on God’s Word. My first introduction to Lectio Divina — prayer based in Scripture reading — felt like a deep homecoming.
And this long-way-around path meanders, finally, to my point: In recent years, the most amazing thing about reading and reflecting on God’s Word is the way I can sit down with a passage I’ve read and heard dozens, even hundreds of times in my life — and suddenly see and understand something completely new from it.
So this is what happened when I went to Mass on the Saturday after Ash Wednesday and, while waiting for Mass to begin, reflected on the Gospel reading for that day — Luke’s recounting (Ch. 5:27-32) of Jesus’ calling of Levi, the tax collector. Jesus spoke to Levi, saying, “Follow me,” and just like that, Levi left everything and followed Him. Fast forward to Levi’s home, where he throws a big party so that all of his tax collector friends could meet Jesus.
Here’s the part that stood out for me in that early morning reflection. I’d never noticed it before. The Pharisees are hanging around, presumably to try, as they always did, to trap Jesus in some sinful behavior (good luck with that, guys), and they question Jesus’ followers about why they are spending their time with “tax collectors and sinners.” And Luke tells us that Jesus replied to them, explaining that the sick, not the healthy, need a physician and that He calls sinners, not the righteous, to repentance.
When the Pharisees challenged Jesus’ disciples, Jesus answered for them.
Wow. Jesus answered for His followers when they were challenged on what really was the essence of their followership: doing what Jesus did, going where Jesus went, spending time with the people Jesus spent time with.
Never in all the years of hearing that passage read, never in all the sermons and homilies I’ve heard on the subject — never had I considered the significance of this contrast. Jesus answers for His followers when they are challenged!
When that kind of insight comes to me it’s actually startling — not just in my mind, but in a physical way. I’m sure I sat up a little straighter, and I remember looking around to see if anyone else noticed it. Then my eyes returned to the page from which those words had jumped out at me, and I had to smile as I thought more about what they had suddenly come to mean.
We face temptation and challenges to our faith every single day, whether directly or indirectly. People, events, things, thoughts — Satan uses them all to challenge us, as did “the Pharisees and their scribes,” as to why we are spending our time the way Jesus wants us to. Sometimes it’s obvious; sometimes it’s more subtle. And it’s continuous. It would be overwhelming, if we had to deal with it all on our own.
But just when we realize we are helpless to deal with these temptations and challenges on our own, we are reminded by Luke’s story that Jesus is there to answer for us.
Of course, in this season of Lent we are focused on the way He answered for sin once and for all on the Cross. I do not think we can ever reflect deeply enough to fully realize what that act of atonement involved in terms of His suffering, nor can we fully understand the absolute love and compassion and mercy for us that went into it.
But here’s the thing. The Cross does not mean that we’ll never sin — oh, no, we are more than capable of continuing to sin. What it means for us is that in the midst of our human capability for sin, in the tangle of temptations and challenges that we face, Jesus stands ready to answer for us, each and every time. That’s what I think the story of Levi’s calling foreshadows — that when Satan uses his wiles and the glamors of the world to tempt and challenge us, we have Jesus to answer for us. We only need to stop and listen for it.
I think He wants us to let Him answer for us. I think it’s significant that Jesus’ followers did not in any way protest or wave off His answering for them. There was no “Oh, never mind, Jesus — we can handle it.” There was nothing of “Let us stand up for ourselves against these guys.”
Jesus answered, and His answer sufficed. And so it is for us to this day.
Oh my Jesus, teach me to stop trying to answer for myself when it comes to sin and temptation. You did so, once and for all, on the Cross, and thus earned for me the truth of Your answer on my behalf each day and moment of my life. Jesus, I know You did not put me here just so I could flounder and fail on my own. You have put me in life just exactly where You can be within easy reach to answer for me when I need You; please give me grace, as You walk beside me, to remember and welcome Your answer. Please, Jesus, give me grace to make Your answer my answer and thus grow to a closer and deeper love for You. Amen.
Leave a Reply