As we begin the season of Lent, questions inevitably come up, and perhaps the most likely one is: “What are you giving up for Lent?” I’ve identified a few questions for the Lenten season that I’m going to work with over the next few weeks, and the first comes from today’s reading where Jesus is asked, “Why does everyone fast but you?”
Fasting and giving something up for Lent are both ancient practices in the church which are intended to teach us sacrifice and spiritual discipline. With Lent being a season of repentance and preparation, it makes sense to try to adopt some sort of daily practice which reminds us of this by forcing a change to routine, leading us to think of the sacrifice of Jesus for us.
There is nothing wrong with any of that as long as it is kept in perspective and done in a spirit of humility and quietness. If it brings you closer to God and makes you a better person, wonderful. If your practice of this discipline causes others to think you see yourself as the second greatest martyr in history because you are giving up chocolate for forty days, you might want to rethink the practice. And if you do it because you think it is an obligation and you dread doing it each year, then try something different. I’ll give you some ideas later.
Today’s reading is about a clash of cultures. Jesus has just invited Matthew to follow him and become a disciple, and Matthew in turn has invited Jesus to come to dinner at his house. It is a dinner party with a wide variety of guests. Matthew was a tax collector, and tax collectors didn’t have a lot of establishment friends, so there were other tax collectors and other folks who were regarded as “sinners,” outside the box of official Judaism. There are also Pharisees around, and they are highly offended at the types of people who are there. Jesus, on the other hand, enters right into the spirit of the celebration and sits down to eat with the guests.
The Pharisees come to the disciples and ask them why Jesus eats with tax collectors and sinners. Does he not respect the ancient practices of separation and purity and not being stained by association with the unrighteous? Jesus answers for himself, stating that these are the very people he has been called to reach and to invite to a new way of life in the kingdom of God. How can you do that if you don’t associate with them?
There is another question asked, similar in nature but from a very different group of people. Some disciples of John the Baptist are present, and the dissonance of this scene with what they are used to had to be totally disconcerting. They are used to a simple, austere existence out in the desert by the Jordan River. Their leader wore clothing made out of camel’s hair. I’ve never worn any of that, but the fact it is stated makes me think it would have been uncomfortable, rough, maybe itchy. And the diet? I love honey, but would never think to pair it with locusts. The point is they were used to a somber, austere lifestyle. They know good and well what kind of scene it would be if John entered the room of this lavish banquet. Everybody present would get a scathing earful of condemnation and warning.
Their question for Jesus is, “We fast and the Pharisees fast, so why don’t you?” The Pharisees and John the Baptist were certainly not good buddies, so this is a very significant question. It is about fasting, but it is about much more than that. It is about all the lifestyle issues raised by Jesus participating in this banquet. The Pharisees, John the Baptist and his disciples, Jesus and his disciples, all come out of the same Jewish religious tradition. How is it possible for Jesus to depart so radically from a tradition seen as important by such disparate groups as the Pharisees and John the Baptist’s group? So John’s disciples raise the objection: We’re not having just a whole lot of fun out in the desert wearing our camel hair and eating our locusts while you are here with the band playing and the wine flowing and the seven course meal being served to you and a bunch of people John would be raking over the coals about their sinfulness.
The response of Jesus is basically that there is a time and place for fasting, but in the middle of a wedding celebration is not that time or place. He indicates that he is ushering in a new age, and the old religious traditions are not capable of accommodating the growth and development of this new age. The old traditions were focused on separating and excluding, and on doing all the right things to keep oneself in right relation to God. The new age is focused on inviting, including, liberating, and celebrating. He says metaphorically that if you try to put the new wine of the kingdom of heaven into the old wineskins of Jewish ritual and legalism, the old wineskins will explode.
This willingness to step outside the box, to challenge traditional thinking and customs, to associate with the outcast and to invite them to come inside, kept Jesus in hot water from all sides. At one point he lamented, “John the Baptist came neither eating nor drinking and they say he is crazy; the Son of man came eating and drinking and they say he is a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners.”
There was a time for fasting in the life of Jesus – he fasted during the forty days and nights of his temptation in the wilderness. This is where the forty days of penitence and self discipline of Lent comes from. There may be times in our lives that call for that, but to do it ritualistically and out of obligation as the Pharisees and the disciples of John the Baptist were doing it is not the most helpful way to do it. Jesus was all about getting people to live from the heart, from the spirit, rather than from the letter of the law, and this is just one more example of that.
There are a lot of people taking fresh looks at Lenten discipline for our day, and I think that is very much in the spirit of Jesus. So let me share just a couple that I have seen this week. One was an idea discussed by the Central Sisters, a group of young mothers here who meet during children’s choirs on Wednesday. The idea is to take one of those large garbage bags and use it during Lent. Every day in Lent, remove an item from your closet that you no longer wear or need and put it into the bag. At the end of Lent, donate the bag of items to a place that can share them with people who can really use them.
That is a great idea! It gives you something to focus on daily that reminds you of the sacrifices Jesus made. It leads you to remove something from your life and make it useful for someone else. It’s a win-win. Children can do the same thing with the overflowing closet full of toys. Men can do it with the garage or the tool room or wherever it is in your life that just keeps getting more and more cluttered. Some people could do it with their pantry.
Another good idea to try is to either remove something bad or add something good to your life that is not food or candy. The list I saw had these things that you might focus on giving up for Lent: anger, bitterness, conceit, despair, estrangement, falseness, guilt, hatred, insincerity, and jealousy. If there is one of those things that you particularly struggle with, choose that one to try to remove from your life. If you can do it for forty days, you are well on the way to making it a new habit. Let’s say you really struggle with complaining about things and would like to be more positive. Put a word up on your mirror or breakfast table and your desk at work that will remind you through the day to look at the good rather than the bad.
If you would rather look at it from a positive aspect, try adding something good for Lent instead of giving something up. The list I saw had these things to take up for Lent: happiness, joy, humility, hope, closeness, truth, grace, love, honesty, and trust.
An old Greek wisdom saying is, “Know thyself,” and that is good advice about Lenten observance. You know yourself better than anyone else. You know better than anyone else what kind of Lenten activity would improve your life and draw you closer to God. You might like variety and choose a different way to observe Lent every year. You might come up with a new idea that will take the faith world by storm next year. I think the Jesus who came to make all things new would like that very much, so put on your thinking caps!
May this year’s Lenten journey to Easter be one of growth and preparation and hope. In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
David J. Bailey
February 14, 2016
Central Presbyterian Church