The Three Choices

Saturday of the Fourth Week of Lent

Jeremiah 11:18-20; Psalm 7:9; Luke 8:15; John 7:40-53

Years ago, the leader of a religious cult said that God told him the world was going to end soon; he even gave the day. When that day came and went, a few members lost their faith and drifted away. However, many did not; their faith grew stronger. When asked why, they replied that God decided to spare the world because of the cult’s prayers.

Although they went about it in opposite ways, both of these groups were looking for the same thing: Consistency. We like our words and actions to be consistent. When they aren’t, when we say one thing but do another, we have three choices: Change our beliefs, change our behavior, or rationalize our behavior away. It can be hard to change our behavior, especially when it’s a habit; it can be even harder to swallow our pride and admit that our beliefs were wrong. That makes rationalizing a very popular choice.

We see shades of this in today’s gospel. The chief priests and Pharisees had firm beliefs about who God is, how He works in the world, and who He works through. In their eyes, that did not include Jesus. But the people had begun to see that the actions of Jesus were inconsistent with that; his miraculous signs along with the depth, truth, and beauty of his words were convincing evidence that God was indeed working in and through him. So, the chief priests and Pharisees had to choose: Either change their own beliefs, change the peoples’ behavior, or somehow find a way to rationalize it and save their own pride.

As the gospel story shows, they weren’t going to change their own beliefs, and they weren’t going to talk the people out of their attraction to our Lord. That left one choice: Rationalize. So that’s exactly what they did; to them, anyone who believed in Jesus was either deceived, ignorant, or ‘from Galilee,’ which was apparently intended as an insult. Ironically, by the end they lost all rationality, ending with an outright untruth: Look and see that no prophet arises from Galilee (John 7:52). If they themselves had looked, they would’ve seen that in fact the prophets Jonah, Hosea, and Nahum were all from Galilee!

But we can’t focus on these men without looking in the mirror, for we all share the great inconsistency of sin. Our faith tells us that something is sinful; we do it anyway; we feel guilty. To rid ourselves of the guilt, we too must choose one of the three options mentioned before. Let’s take the worst one first: Changing our beliefs to suit our sinful behavior. Sadly, many of us know people who have done just that – left the faith rather than give up a sinful life. Let us pray that their hearts may soften, and that we never give in to the temptation to abandon the faith. Second, we can rationalize, as the priests and Pharisees did. This is a great temptation because, to paraphrase St. Jean Vianney, it’s so much easier to excuse ourselves than to accuse ourselves. That is exactly what we do every time we say things like, “I shouldn’t have gotten angry, but you made me so mad,” or “It’s just a little white lie,” or “I know I shouldn’t have texted while driving but it was an emergency.” These may seem like no big deal, but they lead to bigger problems; we dull our sense of sin and open ourselves to another: The sin of presumption, which says, “Go on, do it! God will forgive you later.”

How far these selfish choices are from the generous heart spoken of in the Gospel Acclamation, that keeps the word and yields a harvest through perseverance (Luke 8:15), the innocent heart that prays for justice (Psalm 7:9), the heart that is completely open to God, who Jeremiah called the searcher of mind and heart (11:20). Only such a heart can make that most difficult choice: To change our behavior, so that it is in keeping with our faith. This takes perseverance, for our sins can be habits that are hard to break; it takes love of justice, for we have wounded our neighbor and our innocent Lord and must make amends; and it takes total openness to God, who knows our mind and heart infinitely better than we do.

Let us pray that our merciful Lord will grant us such a heart, that we may have the humility to see ourselves as we are, to admit when we have sinned, and to seek the absolution that He alone can give. Only by His grace can we be most truly consistent.


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