Today we hear a peculiar reading from the Prophet Isaiah: it comes from the time right after Israel’s exile. The people are coming back from where they had been banished and are wondering: what happened? How could God have abandoned us? They’re also asking the logical question of whether this could all happen again!
And God responds: actually, yes, it could happen again. And just like the first time, it won’t be because of God, it’ll be the same as always: it’ll be the People of God, walking away, getting distracted, insisting on having a better way to do things: it will be, in a word, the People of God deciding they are better off being the people of something else.
The Israelites weren’t driven in to exile because they met a tougher opponent, because they got fooled in a highs-takes game of politics: they lost everything they had because they tried to keep everything they had. They began to fool themselves into thinking that other things – important things, of course – were gods too and worthy of the same effort and devotion that belongs only to God.
This is the reason, I think, why we hear this short first reading on the same day we hear this longer passage from the Gospel of Matthew: another entry from the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus is picking up on an individual basis what the Israelites learned as a community over and over again:
In order to get anywhere, the first step in our lives is getting into right relationship with God. It’s only then we can go about fixing, patching, rearranging and improving our relationships with other people.
That’s what Jesus is trying to get at in today’s Gospel: a dirty word that makes all of us feel uncomfortable, because it points out the reality that we’re not perfect: SIN.
Normally when we think about sin, we think about breaking a rule. But in reality, what sin is about is insisting upon our own misery by turning in on ourselves, and not seeing the entire world in the light of God. This is what drove the Israelites into exile: and it’s what drives us into exile in a hundred little ways.
Sin, I think, is about mistaking the counterfeit for the real.
This is abstract, so I figured an example would help. And it’s rather embarrassing for me.
At some point at a county fair, I won an entire box of NASCAR trading cards: think baseball cards, but with stock car drivers on the front. On the box, it said, “autographed cards” inside. Now, I was a kid and thought that brilliant. I didn’t even like NASCAR – but the thought of getting something that seemed so valuable meant a lot to me. So I kept opening packs of cards. No signatures.
This would have gone on for a while. And it did. Then one day, my luck seemed to change. Pack after pack I opened with autographs.
What had really happened is that my brother, without me knowing, began opening up the packs when I wasn’t around, signing cards with a permanent marker, and replacing them without me noticing. It took me a while to realize that he had done this: I only realized, in fact, when I noticed that all the signatures had the same handwriting!
This is, I think, what sin is: it’s the confusion between what’s real and what’s not. And sometimes, when we’re looking for things, we start to see what doesn’t exist: we begin to think that money, or looks, or possessions, or everyone’s opinions of us makes us who and what we are, over and above everything else.
The question that we’re called to ask ourselves today is where are the parts of our lives that are real, and where are the parts that are fake?
That’s really what sin is about – that’s really what today’s Gospel is about too: it’s about our direction in life. Jesus asks us: what are we focusing our lives upon?
In just three days, the entire Christian world will once again be called to look at itself on Ash Wednesday and ask what is real and what is not: yes, our problems are real. But God is more so: let’s take that through our week.
Image from Flickr user ericskiff via creative commons license