Saturday of the First Week of Lent | Readings: Deuteronomy 26:16–19; Matthew 5:43–48
I am afraid we are all born rather egocentric. We are the only reference point that we have, at least initially. “It’s all about me, and why shouldn’t it be?” If Mom and Dad mirror us well, we soon develop “mirror neurons” for empathy and relationship with others, but even other people can still be seen as mere means to my own power and pleasure. Or I can think I deserve everything, which we call a sense of entitlement. We all know adults who never seem to have moved beyond using other people and even using God; they seem to have an arrested spiritual and moral development. They seem unable to receive any true mirroring from God, nor do they lovingly mirror anyone else. They are trapped inside themselves.
Both readings today speak strongly of commandments, and even commandments that push us beyond our normal comfort zones. Moses admits that this will create a “peculiar” people “raised above all the other nations, a people sacred to God.” Unless there is some pressure, social or parental, pushing the infant beyond the pleasure principle, human nature tends to largely take the path of least resistance. We really do need prods, goads, ideals to help us think outside of the little boxes we all create for ourselves. That is the function of laws and commandments. Only in the more mature person can love and grace take over—or even be understood.
Jesus builds on this basic impulse control to command, yes, command, the most difficult position of all: Love of the enemy! Prayer for the persecutor! He points out that this commandment is impossible with ordinary human motivation, or a philosophy of being nice to those who are nice to you. Anybody can do that, he says. Jesus knows he is moving the bar to a much higher plane, and it will be a necessary push to get us there: You are to love with the same kind of love that God loves you, which is total unconditional love. This is the summit and goal of all Jesus’ moral teaching, and we cannot possibly follow it apart from divine union. The egocentric or separate self is incapable of this kind of love.
“This day God commands you to observe these statutes and decrees with all your heart and with all your soul. . . . Yahweh is to be your God and you are to walk in God’s ways and observe these commandments. You are to be a people peculiarly God’s own.” —Deuteronomy 26:16, 18
“This will prove that you are sons and daughters of your heavenly Father, for his sun rises on the bad and the good, he rains on the just and the unjust alike. . . . Live generously and graciously toward others, the way God does toward you.”—Matthew 5:45–48
“God, I have to be honest with you. I am not sure I know how to do this. I am not sure I want to be one of your ‘peculiar’ people.”