21 February 2010

YOUR DREAM: EGYPT OR THE PROMISED LAND?

1st Sunday of Lent
Lk 4:1-13

At the heart of the Old Testament is the great story of freedom. God intervened to set His People free.

When a severe famine hit the land, the Israelites migrated to Egypt. But as they grew in number in the land of Pharaoh, the Egyptians felt threatened. Thus, they started using the Israelites as cheap labor and adopted a policy of systematic killing of newborn Israeli male infants. For many years, the yoke of slavery pressed unbearably heavy on the shoulders of the Israelites, but God heard the cry of His People, and, through Moses, set them free. The book of Exodus celebrates this momentous event of freedom from slavery and the beginning of the journey of the Israelites unto the Promised Land. The first reading in today’s Mass tells us how the Chosen People of God in the Old Testament kept alive this beautiful memory.

But after freedom from slavery, the Israelites faced a new problem: the wilderness. Their new freedom meant new hardships. The euphoria of liberation soon melted in the heat of the desert sand. The price of freedom is the desert after all. Many among the Israelites complained, wanting to return to Egypt rather than go through the wilderness. Some were very vocal in arguing that slavery with security in Egypt was sweeter than freedom with pain in the wilderness. Others even turned violent. All of them, at some point during their sojourn in the desert, became unfaithful to the God who gave them their freedom.

“For forty years, I endured that generation; I said, ‘they are a people gone astray and they do not know My ways.’ So I swore in My anger, ‘They shall not enter into my rest’” (Ps 95:10-11). For forty years, the Israelites were tested in the desert. Many times they were tested, many times they failed. At all times, God never gave up on them.

When the Israelites went hungry, they wonder if God cared at all. Their hearts were divided about God: they wanted to trust Him, but their groaning intestines made them doubt. The Promised Land seemed to be too far away while their hunger was here and now. Yet through their every experience in the desert, God was forming the Israelites to be a People uniquely His own. Deut 6:4 reveals the lesson God was teaching them through their experience of hunger: “…man does not live on bread alone, but on ever word that comes from the mouth of God.” Thus, when God finally gave them His commandments, there was really only one thing He was asking from them: their wholehearted dedication to Him. But Scripture testifies to the Israelite’s infidelity to so faithful a lover such as God. The very life of the Prophet Hosea spells out this love affair between God and Israel.

Jesus is the new Israel. Today, the First Sunday of Lent, we find Him in the same place where the Israelites lived and sojourned for forty years. Jesus is on retreat – praying and fasting – for forty days and forty nights in the wilderness.

Like the Israelites, Jesus is hungry and now being tested. Will He keep the ancient law of His People: to serve God with all His heart, with all His strength, and with all His soul? Is Jesus like the Israelites in the desert whose hearts were divided about God’s plan? Will He still trust God even with an empty stomach? Will He remain focused on His mission despite the defocusing effect of hunger?

We see in the gospel today that Jesus remains wholeheartedly loyal to His Father. “Where your treasure is there will your heart also be” (Lk 12:34) – this claim comes from more than His lips, it emanates from the core of His whole value system. His treasure is the Father’s will; thus, all His heart is there so do His mind, His arms, His feet, and, yes, even His stomach.

Jesus is tested about His attitude toward power and material wealth. Will He do anything and everything if only to be powerful and rich? Will He love God with all His strength? Is His strength found in the physical and material securities the world offers? Or is His love of God the might He wields? Will He cling to the kind of power and prestige that most people aspire for and admire? Will He entrust His kingdom to twelve weak apostles or to goons, guns, and gold?

The entire life of Jesus is now being previewed in the wilderness: a life of saying ‘no’ to this kind of power, possessions, and popularity. He is the best commentary to His teaching when He says, “You know that among pagans the rulers lord it over them, and their great ones make their authority felt. This is not to happen among you. Anyone who wants to be great among you must be your servant, and anyone who wants to be first must be your slave – just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life as a ransom for many” (Mt 20:24-8).

Jesus is also tested if He believes that He can serve God without any hardships. Will He remain loyal to God with all His soul even if His own life is at stake? Will He risk His life for the sake of fulfilling His mission or will He value more His self-preservation? Will He continue loving God even if that very same loving kills Him?

Clearly, we see Jesus in the desert today saying ‘yes’ to fidelity to God even unto death. He is well aware that loving God does not, in any way, mean exemption from dangers and pains. He declares that we are saved but not safe. On the cross, where no angels come to His rescue, Jesus proves that His love for the Father is greater than His love for His own life. His soul He commends to Him.

Jesus is the new Israel. But unlike the Israelites in the desert, Jesus is faithful to God with all His heart, with all His strength, and with all His soul. We, the Church, is the new Israel formed by the Father through Christ Jesus His Son. How do we fare as we are being tested just as the Old Israel and Jesus Himself were tested in the wilderness? Do we strive, do we struggle, do we fight to be faithful to God? Or do we give in to our hunger, succumb to power and wealth at all cost, and preserve our life rather than lay it down for God? Are we Jesus or are we the Israelites in the desert?

We are being tested. We go through our own wilderness. The battle may take many forms, but there is only one fight for God. And there is only one weapon: the word of God, about whom St. Paul reminds us through his letter to the Romans, in the second reading today, “…is very near to you, it is on your lips and in your heart.”

In Gal 5:1, St. Paul likewise admonishes us: “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.”

So, what do you dream about: Egypt or the Promised Land?

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