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27
Feb

Homily for the First Sunday in Lent

LENT I

Matthew VI: 19-33

Our Lord’s discourse on contempt for riches might seem rather wasted on those of us here, as I doubt if any of us can be said to enjoy great wealth: but we may read it also as representing a warning about allowing worldly things to distract us from spiritual concerns. There is a common tendency among Christians when reading of our Lord strictures against various sins and shortcomings to understand Him as addressing other people: the Pharisees, the tax collectors, extortioners and so on. I usually try to see His words as addressed to me personally, so that I might gain spiritual benefit and find my thoughts and behaviour challenged by what He has to say to me. On that basis my “treasures on earth” are not so much my savings account or my tax-free ISA, but my priorities of time and commitment. If we break our waking hours into different activities how much time and energy do we give to spiritual and charitable activities compared to other preoccupations ?

St John Chrysostom suggests that as the mind is to the soul, so the eye is to the body.  When the Lord speaks about the eye is He not only taking an holistic view of a healthy body, but is also referring to our spiritual perceptions: the light within us. If we do not approach the Lenten observance with the right spirit, but instead merely follow the outward forms, we shall reap no benefits. It has been my experience that the fullness of joy, which we anticipate as we move steadily towards the Resurrection feast, depends very much on how we observe Lent.

There has always been an exclusivity about the Christian life. It makes challenging demands and reminds us of the incompatibility of many things we do or say. The apostle James in talking about the misuse of the tongue points out that, “Out of the same mouth proceedeth blessing and cursing … Doth a fountain send forth at the same place sweet water and bitter? Can the fig tree, my brethren, bear olive berries ? either a vine, figs? so can no fountain both yield salt water and fresh.” (James III: 10-12). In today’s Gospel the Lord reminds us that we cannot serve two masters, God and Money – I prefer the Authorised Version’s word “Mammon”, instead of money: it is the personification of power, ambition and riches. The Lord warns us that either we will hate the one and love the other, or we will be devoted to the one and despise the other. It ancient times Mammon often took on a deified persona, which seems very appropriate when considering those whose obsession with riches and avarice almost assumes the state of worshipping money. Indeed, even in the modern game of “Dungeons and Dragons” Mammon is portrayed as an “arch-devil” who rules over one of the nine layers of Hell.

The harm one receives from the love of Mammon results in the loss of more than riches. It separates us from the God who created us and sustains us with His love. If we become obsessed by the harsher master, devoting our energies to other – worldly – enterprises, we fall short of the greater blessing of being God’s servant. In the things of the world we are distracted by many cares, anxieties and tasks which can preoccupy our time and energies, but which in themselves are of little value compared to the things of God. People worry about how they look, about what others think of them, about all sorts of unimagined disasters that may befall them.

In this passage our Lord also touches on the issue of anxiety, which has a deep relevance in our modern society, where so many people suffer from clinical depression. The concerns which He specifically mentions are about eating and drinking and what we should wear, the latter being not about fashion, but about whether we have the wherewithal to provide the clothing on our backs. However, modern angst is frequently a feeling of deep anxiety or dread, not focused on specific and reasonable concerns, but relating to the entire human condition or the state of the world in general. It is a fear of matters over which we can have no influence or control whatever.

This fear of the unknown reveals a lack of trust in God. By contrast the Psalmist declares that “The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want … He restoreth my soul: He leadeth me in the paths of righteousness” (Psalm XXIII: 1 & 3); whilst in the Book of Proverbs we are counselled to “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge Him, and he will make straight your paths.” (Proverbs III: 5-6). The remedy for our perturbation is indeed, “Do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians IV: 6-7).

None of us knows what the future holds, so that if we become anxious we not only spoil the present with our fears but cannot live our lives to the full. We are told to trust in the providential mercy of God and believe that all things work together for good to those who love the Lord (Romans VIII: 28), which clearly shows the difference between ends and means. The Apostle Paul, writing to Timothy, says that “godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into this world, and it is certain we can carry nothing out. And having food and raiment let us be therewith content.” (1 Timothy VI: 6-8)

The Lord gives us the remedy to human angst, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God, and his righteousness; and all these things shall be added unto you.” Don’t let us forget that each time we recite the Lord’s Prayer we pray, “Thy kingdom come.” The late Pope Shenouda said, ““Prayer is a taste of God’s Kingdom, which starts here and finishes there,” which emphasises that as Christians we already have a foretaste of the future kingdom by our communion with God and our striving to conduct our lives according to the precepts He has given us. We are “no more strangers and sojourners, but fellow-citizens with the saints, and of the household of God” (Ephesians II: 19).

As we set out on this year’s Lenten journey our destination, in the first instance, is the feast of Holy Pascha but in each journey that we make we come nearer to our encounter with God, and His kingdom, and His righteousness and all these things will be given to us as well. Arise, let us go hence.