3d Sunday of Lent
Feb 26, 19891 Cor 10: 1-6, 10-12
Ex 3: 1-8, 13-15
St. Theresa, Bronx, N.Y.
“Our fathers were all under the cloud and all passed thru the sea; . . . all were baptized into Moses. All ate the same spiritual food” (1 Cor 10: 1-3).
In the 1st reading we heard God speak from the burning bush and commission Moses to return to Egypt and rescue the Hebrews from the slavery. Maybe you remember the scene from the Ten Commandments.
|Moses leading the Hebrews to cross the Red Sea (Nicolas Poussin)|
As you know, God used Moses to liberate his people. Under Moses, the Hebrew people were formed into God’s very own people. God led them thru the Red Sea and the Sinai desert, miraculously fed them, and gave them the Law. God defeated their enemies and brought them to the promised land, “a good and spacious land, a land flowing with milk and honey” (Ex 3:8).
All of this history is recounted in the books of Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. All of this history Paul evokes when he reminds the Christians of Corinth about Moses and the people who followed Moses out of Egypt toward the Promised Land. Paul reminds the Corinthians that, despite all God’s care and his miracles, despite the leadership and example of Moses, “God was not pleased with most of them, for ‘they were struck down in the desert’” (10:5).
Why were they struck down? After being saved from Egyptian slavery, after being baptized—figuratively—in the Red Sea, after being fed with manna and water from the rock, and after accepting the covenant of the Law, they rebelled. They rebelled repeatedly, worshipping the golden calf, grumbling and complaining constantly, and finally not trusting God to lead them in battle against the inhabitants of the land. They were saved, and then they relapsed.
So, Paul says, watch out, my dear Corinthians. “These things that happened to them serve as an example” (10:6).
The Corinthian Christians lived in a major city, the Manhattan of the times: port, markets, sports, theater, politics, religious temples, and vice of every sort. By accepting Christ, a Corinthian stepped away morally from that world of corruption, consumerism, and pleasure. He followed Christ, the New Moses; ate a new spiritual food, the Eucharist; and looked for a new promised land of milk and honey, eternal life in Christ.
But the Corinthian Christian was physically still in the desert with all its dangers. It was easy for him or her to meet old pagan acquaintances, go to old haunts, take part in former pastimes. If he got smug about salvation, he would be in serious trouble. “Let anyone who thinks he is standing upright watch out lest he fall” (10:12).
When we look around us we certainly see plenty that could make us feel upright. Let me make a distinction here between the moral and the political orders. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard someone say of politicians, “They’re all a bunch of crooks.” Whether that refers to NYC or to Washington, such skepticism is healthy and prudent. It’s the same skepticism that our Founding Fathers had; it’s why they set up a system of checks and balances and wanted frequent elections, limited federal government, and a free press. If such political skepticism makes us keep mayors and school boards, judges and congressmen and even presidents on a tight leash, then we’re wise and are following the best American political tradition.
But in the moral order it’s too easy for us to look around and condemn: those crooked politicians, those drug dealers, those homosexuals, those adulterers, those child beaters, those TV evangelists, those lazy bums, those thugs. And so on.
St. Philip Neri used to see plenty of crime and misery in the streets of Rome. He always condemned sin, but of the people he said, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” In today’s gospel, Jesus says much the same thing: The misfortune of others isn’t an occasion for us to feel good about ourselves. It’s a reminder of our common mortality and our common sinfulness. “Unless you repent you will all likewise perish” (Luke 13:3,5).
Having repented once, or twice, or three times before; having given our lives to Christ in the past—all that’s no guarantee for the future. Not one of us can be sure of tomorrow, much less of final perseverance in God’s grace. If we dare not trust the rascals in city hall, we dare not trust the rascal within us either. And the stakes are infinitely greater.
“Let anyone who thinks he’s standing upright watch out lest he fall.” Let us take a look at our spiritual ancestors who followed Moses out of Egypt, and profit from their example. We must repent daily, never grow smug, and always keep turning to Jesus our Savior.