Year A

First Sunday of Lent 2020

A Professor walks into a classroom and he puts a large empty jar on the desk in front of the class. Then he fills the jar with golf balls and asks the class if the jar is full. To which they reply, yes. Then, however, he gets a container of small pebbles and pours them into the jar . . . naturally they fill the space around the golf balls. Again, he asks the class if the jar is full. To which they reply, yes. Then he brings forward a bucket of sand, and he pours sand into the jar and the jar has no difficulty in accepting this new commodity because it fills the remaining space around the balls and the pebbles. Again, he asks the class if the jar is full. To which they reply, yes. Well by now the class has said the jar is full three times, but each time more has been able to be added to the jar. The jar, explains the Professor, is like our lives. The golf balls are the most important things in our life – what matters most: our faith; our family; our friendships; our vocation. The pebbles are all the other things that are big for us – our house, our job, our car. And the sand is all the other thousand and one cares we have through the course of our week. The point the Professor wished to make to the class by this exercise, is that if we focus first on what is most important in our life, then there will always be room for the rest. However, if we put the sand in the jar first, there will be no room for the golf balls and the pebbles. It is the same with our lives. If we put all our energy on the small things, then we won’t have the time for the things that really matter, and our lives will simply be filled with its thousand and one cares. Pay attention first to the golf balls, the things that really matter in our life. Set your priorities first, then you will be surprised by what else you can take on. Well, at the very end of the exercise, the Professor opens a bottle of beer, and pours the beer into the jar. And the significance of the beer? As he explains, no matter how full your life is there is always the space to share a few beers with friends.

As we begin Lent there is a powerful invitation to us in the Professor’s exercise. For Lent is a time to think again about our priorities, what really matters for us. In some ways, it is the time to empty the jar of our lives and begin again with what we fill it.  And to get the order of how we fill it right again. What is most important for us? To retrieve what truly animates our hearts. To achieve in the jar the right order of the golf balls, the pebbles, the sand – and the beer – again.

Is this not what Jesus does in his time in the desert, in his own time of fasting? The time of testing for him brings him to the recognition of what is most important. He is able to see and hear the seduction around him which can be so compelling. He is able to see it as the shadow it is, as illusory. And he holds on to what is most important for him. It is precisely because he has his own faith-filled beliefs as the first and foremost component of his life, everything else unfoldS for him. He will be able to minister in the midst of both challenge and contradiction with congruency and consistency.

With what do we choose to fill our lives? And more precisely, how do we fill the hungers of our heart? The text of the Gospel this Sunday is very clear: Jesus is tempted most strongly when he is most hungry. It is the same for us. For all of us are hungry, albeit in different ways. Often enough we do not realise just how hungry we are. Then, our neediness seeps out in all the different ways we crave attention, in the manner by which we seek to assert our superiority or control, in the different ways by which we try to overcome our loneliness. But all these ways leave us dissipated and disjointed, scattered, – and paradoxically, in the end – empty. We know that we have been seduced when what promises us fullness leaves us empty. This is the sure logic of seduction. And it is precisely for this reason that Jesus resists the seductions put before him.

The problem of seduction, of course, is that it always presents as an apparent good. This is the also the problem of evil. It always comes to us wrapped in an apparent good. Though conceptually possible, it is difficult to comprehend how someone would genuinely choose evil if it presented as itself. If evil presented as what it is, then the choice against it would be relatively easy. Rather, there is an instinct in us to choose always the good – at least, what appears to us as good. The spiritual task is always to distinguish between what is apparently good and what is truly good. And nowhere else is this more pressing than where we hunger. When we are hungry, we look to be filled. That is natural. But with what do we fill ourselves? Though it might appear to be good, is it truly good? Does it leave us feeling more centred, more at peace, quieter, more still? Or does it leave us feeling more anxious, more frenetic, even more needy? Does it leave those around us more united? Or does it leave those around us disconnected and themselves anxious?

All of us, every one of us, have to face these questions. None of us are immune. Jesus himself is not immune. It is what it means to be human. And there is no guarantee how this problem might find its resolution along our journey. We enter the battle with no guarantee of success. And along the way all of us make mistakes; along the way we recognize that what we are choosing is not truly good, but only apparently good. All of us stand in the same situation; there is a fundamental solidarity with each other in this. Yes, all of us are sinners – me and you, together. It’s not that some of us are sinners, and others are not. 

This struck me during the week in the revelation that one of the greatest spiritual figures of our time, Jean Vanier, had been involved in a number of relationships with women which were manipulative and at worst, abusive. Jean Vanier had pioneered the L’Arche movement – an international association of accompaniment of those with disabilities – and in so doing over many years had written and spoken extensively in such a rich, spiritual way. Indeed, he had been one of the most significant influences in my own life and journey in the late 1970s. Now, following his death, it is apparent that not all of his choices were for the truly good. His own hungers had led him to be seduced into choosing what may have been apparently good to him at the time, but not genuinely good. This has shocked many people around the world who out of their own hunger idealized the man. How could such a renowned spiritual figure have acted in the way he did? Well, Jean Vanier was a sinner like you and I are. He had to face the same battle with which we do, and like us, not every time did he choose well. Why should this surprise us or destroy our confidence in being able to trust the goodness of others? Let not our own hunger for heroes and saints blind us to the recognition that every one of us is caught up in the battle that is conveyed to us by the Gospel this Sunday. The idealization of others is itself a seduction we must constantly address. Most often it is an evasion of accepting the full significance of being human, constituted as we are, radically, by contradiction at worst, and by paradox at best. It will be a lesson with which we will be confronted further as Cardinal Pell’s case comes before the High Court.

In the midst of our hungers we are all in the battle between discerning what is apparently good and what is truly good. Coming back to the Professor and his jar, knowing what our priorities are, knowing what is most important for us, is the key to helping us in this. And these are shaped for us through what God has revealed to us about ourselves, what is conveyed to us in the Scriptures themselves. This is why Jesus turns to them to help him know is truly good apart from what is only apparently so.

Hungry, weary with battle, we come to the Eucharist. We come to the table of the Lord to be fed with the Bread of Life. As we approach this table let us not be afraid to admit just how hungry we are; let us be honest with ourselves that it is never easy to know what is truly good from what simply presents itself as good. Let us not be fearful to admit to ourselves that we often get it wrong. And let us realize that we are together in this, that not one of us is apart from this. For in this profound recognition that our hunger is shared and that our struggle is common there is liberation. And with the Bread given to us in our hunger we might find the genuine nourishment to keep going forward together with both humility and hope.

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