Sunday, March 11, 2012


Tomorrow marks the 100th anniversary of the Girl Scouts, and we had a gathering of two pews worth of them in uniform at the 11:00am Mass today.  One of the young ladies came up to me afterwards to let me know she had the cookies I'd ordered awhile back: two boxes of Thin Mints.  (Don't worry--I won't touch 'em until Lent's over!)  Of course, as I reached for my wallet to pay up, I could distinctly hear the words of the gospel echoing in the background: Stop making my Father's house a marketplace...

   Third Sunday of Lent   B 

Hank—a rather unscrupulous man—had lost his favorite hat.
Instead of shelling out a few bucks for a new one,
he figured he’d stop by a church on Sunday morning
and steal a nice one from the vestibule
while the congregation was busy praying.
No sooner had Hank 
come quietly through the door
than an usher spotted him 
and quickly seated him in a pew
just in time to hear a sermon 
on the Ten Commandments.
On his way out from Mass,
Hank vigorously shook the priest’s hand 
and said, “Father, I have to thank you
for saving my soul this morning.
I came to this church 
with the intention of stealing a hat,
but after hearing you preach 
on the Ten Commandments,
I changed my mind.”
“Well,” said the priest, “I’m sure you mean that
the seventh commandment, ‘You shall not steal,’ changed your mind.”
“No, no,” Hank replied.  “It was the one about adultery.
As soon as you said that, I remembered where I left my hat.”

Although you may have never realized it,
most of us—like Hank—have an unconscious ranking system
when it comes to the Ten Commandments.
There are certain ones we just take more seriously than the others.
I usually run into this in the confessional,
when somebody’s trying to convince me
(or convince themselves, more like it,)
that whatever sin they’re confessing really isn’t all that bad.
“Well…it’s not like I killed anybody.”
“It’s not like I stole a car or anything.”
“It’s not like I actually committed adultery.”
Meanwhile, I have yet to hear anyone argue,
“It’s not like I worked on the sabbath or something.”
We seem to think it’s a much bigger deal
to break some commandments rather than others.

Now, if we are so prone 
to ranking the commandments,
wouldn’t you think that maybe—just maybe—
God has a ranking for them, too?
And since it was God who delivered
these commandments in the first place,
wouldn’t you think that, 
if God has a preference,
he just might have put them down 
in a particular order?

The one commandment 
I hear about least in the confessional—
whether it’s a sin actually committed
or a case of, “Well, at least I didn’t…”
is the very first commandment:
I, the Lord, am your God;
you shall not have other gods besides me.
And yet, since that’s the one 
God put very first on the list,
I’d say it’s one which should make us 
sit up and pay attention.

In fact, I’d go so far as to say 
that none of the other nine commandments
make any sense whatsoever without it.

Everything else in my life flows from what I worship.
Everything I think, feel, do, and say will fall into place around it.
What’s my highest value?
What’s of the greatest worth to me?
What’s most important?  My top priority?
It ought to be pleasing God.
When I’m making a choice,
when I’m facing a decision—big or small—
do I consider, “Does this please God?”
If that’s not my main criteria,
if that’s not the standard by which I measure everything else,
then something’s out of order—
something else is in first place;
then I am not, in fact, worshiping the one true God.  (cf. R. Barron)

And if I’ve given my loyalty to other gods—
be they fame or fortune, power or pleasure,
culture or country, family or even my own ego—
then don’t the other commandments which follow become negotiable?
If God is not really and truly the Lord of my life,
then aren’t these just guidelines? 
Ten helpful suggestions?
One source of influence on my thinking among so many others?

If we’re not putting the first commandment first,
then should be we surprised
that people are neglecting the third commandment,
as parents increasingly find it more important
to get their kids to games and practice
than to Mass and Sunday school?
If we’re not putting the first commandment first,
should be we surprised
that people are neglecting the fifth commandment,
as drugs are killing millions,
either by the slow death of addiction
or the violence which surrounds the trade?
If we’re not putting the first commandment first,
should be we surprised
that people are neglecting the sixth commandment,
as more and more marriages break up,
and fewer and fewer couples even bother to get married?
If we’re not putting the first commandment first,
should be we surprised
that people are neglecting the ninth commandment,
as they sink deeper and deeper into needless debt
because they covet a lifestyle beyond their means?
We often work out of the assumption
that the quality of our relationship with God
is based on how we relate to other people and the things of this world.
But that gets things backwards.
In reality, how I relate to other people and the things of this world
ought to be established on my primary relationship:
my relationship with God.

In the gospel, we hear the startling story of how Jesus “cleansed” the temple,
driving out the money changers and those who sold animals for sacrifice.
It’s a rather bold and dramatic way to make the point
that his body, his person, is the truest and greatest temple:
the place where heaven and earth, where God and man, most perfectly meet.
We, too, are temples;
our hearts are places of worship.
If we let Jesus get in there,
if we allow God to take his proper place
at the center of who we are and all that we do,
then we can expect things to change.
Jesus will make as much of a ruckus in your heart
as he did in that temple of stone:
turning your values on their head and rearranging your priorities completely.
And he’ll do it for the same reason that he once did in Jerusalem:
to zealously reclaim it as his Father’s house,
where there’s no room for commerce or compromise or any other gods.

This Lent, put first things first.
Examine your life in light of God’s commandments.
Be sure to start with number one.

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