February 14, 2016
First Sunday of Lent
First Reading: Deut 26:4-10
It is hard to bench 300 pounds if you don’t regularly lift weights. It is also hard to run a marathon if you haven’t been training. We generally don’t do such challenging feats if we have not be preparing ourselves to perform them. But this kind of training does not only apply to athletic competitions. If we really set out to be like Jesus and to live the way he wants us to, we need some training. If we want to be ready for the “heroic moment” in which our virtue is challenged by temptation (to sleep in, to give in, to indulge), then we have to be constantly training ourselves, our wills in particular, to do what we really want to. Without consistent training and practice to confront it, the moment of temptation can overwhelm us.
An Envy-Smashing Ceremony
In this Sunday’s first reading from Deuteronomy, God establishes a ceremony that confronts one of the temptations that will continually challenge the people: envy. Let’s start with the basic idea of the ceremony: If you were a farmer in ancient Israel (as almost everyone was), you would come to the Temple at the time of the barley harvest, during the feast of Passover to offer “first fruits.” The “first fruits” would be the very first bushel of grain that you were able to harvest from your field. The idea was that you would take that first portion and offer it to God, leaving it in the Temple with the priests, and that you wouldn’t harvest the rest of your fields until that first basket had been offered.
Stating the Obvious
The ceremony, as described in our reading, involves reciting a two-part formula. First, you say to the priest:
“I declare this day to the LORD your God that I have come into the land which the LORD swore to our fathers to give us” (Deut 26:3 RSV).
This declaration acknowledges your personal participation in the covenant—that the story of Israel is your personal story, that the Lord has delivered you and that you have embraced his gift of the Promised Land. It is an acknowledgment that everything you have is a gift, since everything you have comes from the land which God has given to you. Notice the last line of the declaration, which includes the phrase “…to give us.” God has given his people the gift of the Promised Land, and they annually return to the Temple to acknowledge this gift.
Retelling the Story
The second part of the formula is longer, and starts with the memorable phrase, “A wandering Aramean was my father” (Deut 26:4). This, of course, is a reference to Abraham. In the course of this formula to be recited, you would retell the story of Abraham coming to the Promised Land, the enslavement of the people in Egypt, their deliverance and exodus, and finally the entry into the Land. The point of this recital is to call God’s great deeds of deliverance to mind and to place them squarely in the forefront. It is only because of his deliverance that I am able to enjoy the fruit of the land. The formula concludes with a powerful recognition of how everything in life is a gift from God:
“And behold, now I bring the first of the fruit of the ground, which thou, O LORD, hast given me” (Deut 26:10 RSV).
Essentially, we are saying to God: “Everything is yours. You have given some of it to me as a gift and now I give the gift you gave me back to you as a gift.” This cycle of gift-giving displays the essence of love, a continual reciprocal giving to one another. The two-part formula is interspersed with two descriptions of the ceremony of handing the gifts over to the priest.
Training Away the Envy
The moral power of this ceremony lies in its ability to confront the problem of coveting in our hearts. We have a natural tendency to hoard, to covet, to want, to envy what others have. The Ninth and Tenth Commandments (essentially “Thou shalt not covet”) confront this tendency in us with a strong rebuke. Yet we need more than a command to stop doing something that we constantly lean toward. This ceremony of offering the first fruits was designed to root out our covetousness. It forces us to acknowledge that everything we have is a gift and brings us to recite the saving deeds of the Lord, which have benefitted us. It brings us to the place where we can say to him: “You have given me everything and I give everything back to you.”
Getting Into the Cycle of Giving
While you or I might not be harvesting barley or bringing baskets of grain to the Temple on the backs of donkeys, we can enter into the spirituality of giving outlined by this ceremony. We too recall God’s saving deeds every time we recite the Creed. We too give gifts to God whenever we put money in the plate or offer the gifts of bread and wine to the priest at Mass. We do these things to acknowledge exactly what the ancient Israelites acknowledged: God has given us all things and so we want to give everything back to him. We want to live free from envy and coveting and embrace a life of generosity and giving. We can only do that with consistent practice, consistent will-training, consistent giving. Once we recognize the cycle of giving to God and receiving from God, we can finally let go of the green envy that can bind us in a downward spiral of selfishness. Cycles are much better than downward spirals! Guess I better start training for that 300 lb. bench press.