The first line of the first reading and the last line of the last reading this week, the first week of Lent, form a natural pair. On March 2, in Leviticus, God speaks to the Israelites: “Be holy, for I, the Lord, your God, am holy.” Then on March 7, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus speaks to us: “So be perfect, just as your heavenly Father is perfect.” In the first full week of Lent, the Church wants to make sure we can’t escape this theme: God’s holiness is the proper measure of our action.
The reading from Leviticus goes through a series of commandments, each concluding with the emphatic statement: “I am the Lord.” The message is pretty clear: We need to orient our thoughts, desires and actions to be in accord with the Lord’s heart and mind. Because of our fallen condition, that’s not automatic; it takes work. Lent is about that work.
Likewise, in readings from the Sermon on the Mount Jesus repeatedly makes the point: “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall act this way and not that way.’ But I say to you: It’s not enough that you stay clean on the outside; you have to be cleansed on the inside as well.”
That interior purification also takes work, and Lent provides an occasion to do the work.
Speaking of purifying ourselves, there’s a relationship between Lent and the upcoming election (Missouri’s primary election is March 10).
I’m not going to tell anyone how to vote! I just want to point out that we need — and should be deliberate about taking — an extended time of spiritual preparation, asking for God’s guidance. Providentially, this week’s readings highlight the role of prayer and fasting in obtaining God’s help.
Jonah is sent to Nineveh. The whole city is threatened with destruction. In response, the people declare a time of prayer and fasting. And it works. God sees their repentance and has mercy on them. The city is saved.
Esther was queen in a time when the entire Jewish population was threatened with destruction. In response, she gets ready to petition the king for their protection. But before making her petition, she undertakes a time of prayer and fasting. And, again, it works. By God’s grace, the king’s heart is well disposed toward her: He grants her request, the plot against the Jewish people unravels, and they are saved.
Today, some people think the country is threatened by the tyranny of a conservative majority. Others think the country is threatened by the tyranny of a liberal majority. Still others are looking for a savior from both.
What’s clear to me is that we all need to undertake a time of prayer and fasting. We need to purify our own hearts, help purify the hearts of others, and petition God’s help for the whole election cycle.
The readings for this week contain a lesson for us. We would do well to heed that lesson. A time of prayer and fasting is essential if we want to shape our thoughts, feelings, and actions after the Lord’s own heart and obtain His help. The Lent that precedes an election is a precious opportunity. Let’s not miss our chance.