Reflection by: Dr. Bill Mattison, Senior Theological Advisor
C.S. Lewis’s little book The Great Divorce is an allegorical portrayal of the journey to heaven–or hell. The narrator encounters a series of characters who are invited to fullness to life, but in the majority of cases decline the invitation. The book is a haunting portrayal of what it looks like “from the inside” to–as absurd as it seems–not want heaven, not want true happiness. One of the themes of the book is that “everyone gets what they want,” meaning in the end it is not a judgmental God who casts people off into hell. Startlingly enough, it is we people who do not want heaven, choosing instead a “happiness” fabricated on our own terms.
This Lent, as every Lent, we are invited to discern again what it is we truly want. In the gospel passage for Ash Wednesday, one of the handful of days we read the same gospel passage every year, Jesus issues a “call to arms,” if you will. What do you truly want? Jesus warns us not to be “hypocrites.” Hypocrites are not those who do not know of Jesus. Rather they are people who have heard God’s call and claim to want God and heed that call. Yet instead they warp activities that are ways to live out love of God and others into occasions to glorify themselves, to “be seen by others” as righteous (Mt 6:1).
Jesus instead calls us to seek our heavenly Father, and to let that shape everything we do. He invites us to be people who are single-hearted, integrated, doing all we do for love of God and others in God. As we heard last Sunday, we are invited to “seek first the Kingdom and his righteousness, and all else will be given to you besides” (Mt 6:33). He invites us to want God, to want true happiness.
In today’s gospel Jesus teaches us how to do three activities that have become anchors in Lent–almsgiving, prayer, and fasting. These three acts in a sense “cover” all our relationships in life, since they concern others (almsgiving), God (prayer), and ourselves (fasting). In each arena we are invited to seek our heavenly Father and be free of wanting an alluring but false happiness that is ultimately about ourselves.
Christ the teacher even offers practical advice on how to love God above all else. Consider His “call to alms.” Rather than be people who “blow trumpets” while serving others to call attention to ourselves, Jesus enjoins us “not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing” (Mt 6:3). This seemingly impossible guidance is meant to remind us to serve others for their sake and ultimately for love of God, not for ulterior motives that are ultimately about glorifying ourselves in a pathetic attempt to earn a dignity and worth God has already given us freely. Jesus offers similar practical advice in how to pray, and how to surrender our immediate desires in fasting to free our deeper desire for God.
As we pray, fast, and give alms this Lent, let us recall that we are being invited to be single-hearted and wholehearted in our love of God and others in God. At one point in The Great Divorce, the narrator’s guide claims that in the end there are only two types of people: those who say to God “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “thy will be done.” This Lent let us be renewed in accepting Jesus’ invitation to love our heavenly Father before all, so that with Jesus we might say to our heavenly Father, even in times of suffering, “not my will but yours be done” (Lk 22:42).