March 6 was the beginning of Lent. Lent is sort of like running a sprint, an intense period of exercise. There are two times in our Christian calendar for these sprints, the four weeks before Christmas, which is called Advent, and Lent, the 40 days, not counting Sundays, before Easter. The word Lent is from the Middle English word lenten which means the season of Spring. To play on words, lent is the time to spring into action, to intensify our spiritual activity. We each have some kind of daily routine of prayer and bible study. Some of us read the verse of the day, supplied by a bible app. Others read through the bible in a year’s time. Lent is our opportunity to do more. Often we practice self-denial like fasting, or giving up something we enjoy like coffee or chocolate. Lent has been a practice of Christians going back to its earliest centuries. But why do we do it?
In the gospel reading for today, Jesus tells a parable to teach those who think themselves religiously superior to others. Jesus “told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous and regarded others with contempt”. (Lk 18:9)
Jesus was trying to awaken the souls of those religious leaders in Israel who didn’t think Jesus had anything to teach them. They regularly interfered with Jesus and his disciples to try and stop Him from teaching in the temple and synagogues. There’s something very telling about the kind of person Jesus sees in the Pharisees. They are looking down on other people from a position of religious power and authority.
I had lunch with friends from church the other day and one commented that it was great to visit over a meal, she’s so used to looking up at pastors from their raised positions in the sanctuary. Somehow it felt more human. God forgive us when we pastors fail to breach the gap created by our traditions. We were never meant to be vaulted above the people, but rather presented as a mediator who serves on behalf of the people. We play a role in worship, but the chief character or the lead role belongs to God!
We can point to a number of pastors and TV evangelists who have fallen from the lofty positions. Jim Bakker of The PTL Club became a multimillionaire through his television show. Money and power corrupted him. We all tend to idolize things rather than God. For Bakker it was wealth and power that swayed his heart away from Christ. Here’s the thing. When the Pharisee prays to himself and says he’s glad he’s not like others who are thieves, sinful and adulterous, it doesn’t occur to him that he is guilty of the same things.
As part of the temple system the scribes and Pharisees benefited personally from the temple tax and monetary offerings. When Israel was more nomadic the offerings came from the people’s flocks, but as Israel became more settled, few people kept their own flocks, so they bought sheep or goats from suppliers at the temple, a cut of the proceeds went to the temple. It was a lucrative side business. The temple demanded a tax on every citizen and the Pharisees made sure it was paid, even by the poor! That is why Jesus said of the scribes and Pharisees, “They devour widows’ houses” (Lk 20:47a) The Law of Moses, which they taught, gave provision to care for widows, but temple authorities took possession of a widow’s home when they could not pay the temple tax. And the Pharisee is glad he’s not like a thief!?
Since money and power has become the true motivator, Pharisees are also guilty of adultery; that is they are having a romance with money and influence rather than with God. The Pharisee thinks himself righteous before God because he tithes 10% of his income and fasts twice a week. The prophets were right when they wrote, “these people praise me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me.” (Isa 29:13) And maybe that is the point of Lent.
Where is your heart? Has it drifted away from intimacy with God? Are you pursuing earthly pleasures, wealth or power? In what ways has your devotional life become rote habit, devoid of the transformative power of God?
Every athlete hits a wall where they can’t seem to improve beyond a certain level. Even dieting does the same. You reach a place you can’t get past. It requires changing things up and adopting new habits of exercise or dieting. Lent is our opportunity to change things up as we sprint toward Resurrection Day!
As we begin this season of Lent consider the attitude of your heart. The tax collector humbled himself before God. Beating his chest, he acknowledged his deepest need, friendship with God. May we all find new ways to acknowledge our hearts’ truest cry.