Tuesday in the First Week of Lent: Isaiah 55:10-11, Matthew 6:7-15.
I’m really not a great gardener, but my time working at a community gardening nonprofit planted in me (pun noted) a deep appreciation of the entire agricultural cycle. The word “fertile” immediately conjures the smell of loamy earth in the spring; piles of vegetation, straw and soil mixed and watered, now hot and cooking in a productive compost heap. And the mature plants, of course, tall and fruitful in the late summer. So I love to read agricultural analogies and images of fruitfulness and fertility in the scriptures.
Today’s readings begin with an agricultural analogy that God delivers through Isaiah. It’s pure poetry:
Just as from the heavens
the rain and snow come down
And do not return there
till they have watered the earth,
making it fertile and fruitful,
Giving seed to the one who sows
and bread to the one who eats,
So shall my word be
that goes forth from my mouth;
It shall not return to me void,
but shall do my will,
achieving the end for which I sent it.
We can appreciate the agricultural comparison: God’s word that is spoken falls upon our ears, germinates in us, and sprouts forth wisdom and faith. But consider how from God’s perspective this is a very real equivalence, not just an artistic metaphor. God created rain and snow to fall to the earth as productive and life-giving elements. His Word is very much the same, something He creates to fall to us on earth with the same intention of “making fertile.” All of creation is a gift of life from God, and what we call “revelation,” or the wisdom of the prophets and saints revealed to them by God, is another life-giving gift from God. He, in his superabundant love, pours out His Word upon us with the intention of helping us grow close to Him, to perfect ourselves and rejoin Him in the Kingdom. It is as constant and inevitable as the rain from the sky and the seasons. It is God’s plan for us.
It’s important to remember that, on the order of creation, we are the same as the plants that grow from the earth. We are all God’s creation. They need sun and rain to thrive; God is telling us that we need His Word to develop in the way He intends. That is because, on the order of being, we are distinctly unique from the plants and other creatures in creation. If we ignore His Word sent from Heaven to guide us, it is like a plant that never receives water: it will wither and die. Better yet, let’s remember the Word Himself and the Parable of the Sower: the farmer (God) scatters seed (His Word) and some is eaten by birds (ignored) or lodged in poor soil (those unwilling to accept the Word of God) but some grows in good soil and produces a crop 100, 60, or 30 times what was sowed. God uses agricultural analogies not just because they’re evocative; on the order of creation, we are the same as His beloved plants for whom He sends rain. It’s not so much an analogy as the plain truth. What we see in the Parable of the Sower is that while plants operate on the level of nature, we are invited to operate on a supernatural level. This is because we have souls, a piece of the Divine spirit in our beings, which enables us to yield spiritual harvests far beyond what a natural agricultural harvest might be.
God has special plans and a special place in His heart for humanity above and beyond the rest of creation; not only do we read this in Genesis, we have His Son’s Incarnation, Death, and Resurrection to prove it. Before we skip about the earth in our pride over being God’s favorites, let’s consider what it means to be His favorites. The Way that His Son shows us is to “deny yourself and take up your cross daily.” He elevates us to position us as servants to each other and the rest of creation. This is truly great, a share in the divinity of God Who is Himself always pouring out love and mercy upon His creation. But it clashes mightily with our human conception of greatness that we arrive at without His guiding Word. That conception is that we become little tyrants getting everything we desire — absurdly we think this is like being a god. Just look at our politicians, entertainers, and sports heroes. What a disastrous set of role models and idols we’ve set up for ourselves!
We need to understand deep in our hearts that nothing in this world is more important than every word that comes from the mouth of God. Just like rain is sent by God for plants to grow, God’s Word is sent to us to be our food for salvation. This is most memorably recorded as Moses reminds the Israelites: “He humbled you by letting you hunger, then by feeding you with manna, with which neither you nor your ancestors were acquainted, in order to make you understand that one does not live by bread alone, but by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord” (Deut 8:3). Jesus quotes this very scripture passage when Satan tempts Him by offering to turn the stones into loaves of bread (c.f. Mat 4:4). God allows our bodily hunger to help us understand and identify spiritual hunger; the soul and the body are united in humanity. The prophets teach us that God’s Word is this very food to satisfy our spiritual hunger. Jeremiah proclaims, “Your words were found, and I ate them, and your words became to me a joy and the delight of my heart” (Jer 15:16). And in the verses prior to Isaiah’s reading today, God tells the Jews, “Listen carefully to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food” (Is 55:2b). These references to eating God’s Word might be confusing at first, until you remember the order of creation and the fact that God is sending us nourishment like He sends rain for plants, and that His concern for us is primarily spiritual, not bodily.
How beautifully this helps us understand the Eucharist! Jesus is God’s Word in human form and when He rises from the dead in His Divinity, He offers us this incarnated Word to eat sacramentally. The Eucharist is a profound sign of God’s continuing love for humanity, wherein His Son’s Presence can dwell within us as the Mystical Body of Christ, the Church. In His love, He sent His Word — first in the revelation to His prophets, and finally in the body of His Son — all of this meant to provide us salvation and nourishment as we walk the Way to Him.
As we turn to the gospel reading, Jesus’s teaching of the Lord’s Prayer, a line must jump out for us: “Give us this day our daily bread.” We know by now what type of bread Jesus is talking about: spiritual bread, the Word of God, in fact, His very self. This is a plea to God to keep feeding us with His Word and teachings as well as a recognition that we need the sacramental Eucharist to keep us on our Christian path. We read this now in Lent as a reminder that there is work to do as Christians to keep ourselves healthy. Daily bread can be found in the daily readings for Mass, in the Divine Office, and in private Bible study. We pray to God in the Lord’s Prayer for this bread, and He provides it in many forms. The question is, are you feeding yourself?
I’d like to close this reflection with the final focus of the gospel reading. The second to last petition in the Lord’s Prayer is “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” and Jesus goes on to explain this phrase. He says, “If you forgive men their transgressions, your heavenly Father will forgive you. But if you do not forgive men, neither will your Father forgive your transgressions.” This is a bit more serious than it sounds in the Lord’s Prayer. God’s forgiveness is conditional upon our own forgiveness of other humans. This sounds a bit harsh for the ever-loving, ever-forgiving God, so what’s going on here? We have to remember that when we deny someone forgiveness, we have removed ourselves from God. We consider ourselves not as His children focused on His being, but as somehow separate beings with feelings, desires, and pride that need to be protected over and above our obligation to our Maker’s law. We are denying, even throwing up the spiritual food He has given us. His Word and teaching is clear on forgiveness, and we commit a grievous sin when not forgiving someone: to them, certainly, but more significantly against God. We put ourselves on the path to spiritual starvation and death. We place ourselves in the rocky or thorny ground where the seed of God’s word is choked out. This is our decision, we must realize, when we do not forgive someone.
Forgiveness shouldn’t be hard, although admittedly it is. If we consider the one who has hurt us as another child of God, perhaps lost, perhaps just straying, then we can start to have empathy with their actions as the same as ours when we sin. If we remove ourselves from our desire to be seen as great in other’s eyes, we can dull the hit we take to our pride when someone wrongs us. And if we’re still struggling with forgiving someone, then we should feed ourselves on the Word of God. There is much strength, support, and wisdom in our scriptures to help us stay on the path to God.
I worry that this last paragraph seems like a collection of trite sentences making forgiveness sound easier than it is. A better writer than me, C.S. Lewis, might offer some better insight. In his 1947 essay “On Forgiveness,” he notes that we often think we’re asking God for forgiveness when in fact we’re asking Him to excuse us. The difference is that we try to explain away our sins or put partial blame on the circumstances or someone else. In this way, we’re essentially saying, “please excuse my transgression as something that was pretty much unavoidable.” If we truly take responsibility for the sin, no matter how it came about, then we will be prepared to ask for forgiveness. He writes: “Forgiveness says, ‘Yes, you have done this thing, but I accept your apology; I will never hold it against you and everything between us two will be exactly as it was before.’ If one was not really to blame then there is nothing to forgive. In that sense forgiveness and excusing are almost opposites.” His point is that we must truly be honest with ourselves when approaching God for forgiveness. Then he turns to forgiving others, and he notes that the same problem of excusing vs. forgiving is there. We are tempted to excuse them because it’s easier to think that they didn’t mean to wrong us (or someone else), or that, again, circumstances made them do it. But Jesus tells us that we must truly forgive others, which means accepting that they truly sinned and forgiving them just the same. Lewis writes, “To be a Christian means to forgive the inexcusable, because God has forgiven the inexcusable in you.” By allowing Christ’s great sacrifice to stand in for all of our sins, God has forgiven the inexcusable in us. Near the end of the essay, Lewis writes:
This is hard. It is perhaps not so hard to forgive a single great injury. But to forgive the incessant provocations of daily life – to keep on forgiving the bossy mother-in- law, the bullying husband, the nagging wife, the selfish daughter, the deceitful son – How can we do it? Only, I think, by remembering where we stand …
I want to cut off his last sentence there because I think this is an important piece of wisdom that emanates directly from the mouth of God. This is why Christ focuses so much on the virtue of humility. “Remembering where we stand” means to be humble in the face of God and of His creation. It means remembering that on the order of creation, we are the same as the plants and stones, pieces of God’s great cosmos. To forgive requires a humble heart that is ordered by the love and grace God gives us, not by the desires and pride we develop on our own.
May we all eat our daily bread this Lent and find it easier and easier to forgive others.