A priest friend shared in one of his homilies how a television show that he used to watch pretty regularly, laugh at, and dismiss as just kind of this harmless thing, years later, now having been a priest for some time and just growing deeper in his faith, how taken aback he was when he happened to be home on a day off turned it on with family and friends.  That the show, the characters, the storylines all left him feeling wildly uncomfortable.  He now felt this sense of embarrassment and guilt over things that he had laughed off and didn’t think much about in the past.  I had the same thing happen to me a few weeks ago.

Thanks so much for stopping by to read this homily for the THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT March 3, 2024.  I appreciate your sharing this on your social media posts and your feedback and comments…  I’m also grateful for all those who’ve asked for the audio version and share them as well at SOUNDCLOUD click HERE or from ITUNES as a podcast HERE.  May the Lord be glorified in your reading and sharing- Father Jim

Turning on the television, waiting for another show to come on; an episode of Friends was just finishing.  In this particular episode, this beautiful, Italian-born actress named Isabella Rossellini was a guest star.  I instantly remembered the whole episode and the premise when I saw her.  Rossellini stops at the coffee shop, where much of the show takes place.  Earlier in the episode, the group of friends (Ross, Chandler, Joey, Monica, Phoebe and Rachel) had discussed celebrities that they could have a one-time fling with, and their boyfriends/girlfriends wouldn’t or couldn’t be upset with them – they had, for all intents and purposes, given them a “pass.” Should they meet any of the celebrities on their list and somehow were so charming that this famous individual found them irresistible – they were allowed to go and have a fling with them.  The one guy, Ross, initially had Isabella as one of his 5 but had been talked out of her occupying a spot by his friend Chandler since she was out of the country so often, which lessened the possibility for the guy ever to run into her.  So when she walks into their neighborhood coffee shop, he is so shocked that even though the rules had stated that they only had 5 on their list, his girlfriend Rachel allows for the exception and encourages him to go over and hit on her.  As Ross goes over, explains the whole situation to her, and shows her the printed, laminated card he had made and placed in his wallet, a list, remember, she was not on, but was supposed to have been and would have been had it not been because of Chandler. Ross’ friends watch this most awkward interaction play out and end comically as the actress completely rejects him.

This is one of those scenes that is a highlight on reels of “classic moments” of this still-popular-after-almost-30-years sitcom.  My own group of friends and I watched it only a year after we had graduated from college back in 1996 – and I can remember laughing along with it, as well as the discussions that followed of lists that my friends (both guys and gals, I would add) were making up of celebrities they could have flings with.   Since I was in the seminary at that point, I remember my friends encouraging me to make up my own list (which I didn’t… but I did laugh it off and went along with them as they debated their own top 5s).   I’m honestly embarrassed by that memory and was ashamed about it.  It’s easy to just explain it away as a stupid joke, a silly discussion, that we were just fooling around.   But this memory of me and my friends laughing at this show of friends kind of haunted me when I was sitting with this Sunday’s readings, especially staring with that first reading from the Book of Exodus.

Throughout the season of Lent, we’ve heard this progression of the History of God saving His people.  Two weeks ago, we heard how He saved people through the faithfulness and obedience of Noah – the sins of the world were washed away in the flood waters and the re-creation of creation would begin through this new covenant with Noah.  Last Sunday, we heard how, through the faithfulness of Abraham and Isaac, God revealed that His relationship with His people would be unlike any other that was seen at the time.  As these different pagan cultures surrounding them worship their demonically manufactured false gods through human sacrifice, the Lord God would reveal that such acts are forbidden from His people. What He wants is single-minded trust, complete surrender of one’s heart to Him.  In return, God Himself would provide “the sacrifice.”  Both then in that moment of encounter with Abraham and Isaac and then in the fullness of time in offering His only son to save all humanity.  Both Noah and Abraham remain these giant figures in the Judeo-Christian faiths because they were the ones who helped convey these massive revelations for the People of God. Truths which helped shape them to be distinctly different from everyone else.  It was what was making them “the Chosen People.”  Not in the sense of excluding anyone.  God’s goal is for all of His creation is to come to know, love, and glorify Him through the Jewish People.  He’s starting by entering into these covenants with this people to ultimately share with all humanity the gift of Himself.   But what we’re seeing and hearing in all of these ways that are mind-blowing interactions when we just reflect on the fact that the Creator of everything actually humbles Himself.  Think about it.  If you’re God – who has everything, who is everything, who can do anything – that his creatures, creation, start going astray, how easy would it be to annihilate and just start over?  I mean, I burn a piece of toast, throw it out, and just make another one.  Why doesn’t God?

Because we’re more valuable than a piece of toast.  There’s a line you probably never imagined hearing in a homily.  There’s a line I never imagined saying.  There’s a line that, sadly, I wonder if people genuinely believe…

God humbles himself, condescends – and lowers himself by making Himself accessible and relatable.  Creating ways for his still mixed-hearted people who seemingly move from trust to disobedience at the flip of a coin to be saved from those acts of disobedience… To constantly make a new way, a new start after sometimes lengthy histories of bungling those opportunities over and over.  All because He’s continually rooting us on… He’s seeing our great potential.  He who made and fashioned our hearts knows what they are capable of and is overjoyed when we finally get that, when we start pursuing Him, striving for holiness ourselves.  Why?  Because He’s madly in love with us.

Sit with that.  The Creator of the Universe knows you.  Not simply us as part of this massive blob of humanity – where we’re just one more among the close to 8 billion people who currently make up the human race.  He knows every single one of those 8 billion.  He knows you and me.  The Creator of all things sees us, knows us… and loves us.  Oh yeah, that itself makes us far more valuable than a piece of toast.

But here’s the thing with love.  When it’s honest, genuine, sincere, and based on what is authentic and true, (which God Himself is in fact that which determines what makes things authentic and true) – so when He loves, He’s all in.  That’s why this single line from that first reading of Exodus stops me in my tracks every time I encounter it.  As we get lost in recounting the ten Commandments and try to remember what numerical order each thing goes – it’s easy to overlook the single line…where God reveals something utterly incredible about Himself:

I the Lord, your God am a jealous God.

It’s shocking to hear that.  First off, because, more than likely, we know jealousy is not a good thing.  It’s unpleasant, for sure.  So it’s hard to imagine God, who is all good, all loving, all perfect, attributing something unpleasant to Himself.  And we most often associate jealousy as a sinful thing, which it can very quickly become.   When that feeling is directed towards something that is not ours that we want to possess, Jealousy is sinful.  For the most part, in English, we tend to use Jealousy and Envy interchangeably.  But one Bible commentary explained that’s not entirely accurate.  That Envy is an evil, being strongly condemned in both the Old Testament and the New Testament, is different from being jealous.

‘We are jealous of our own;
we are envious of another man’s possessions.
Jealousy fears to lose what it has;
envy is pained at seeing another have.’”

So that’s already amazingly good news – news:God has a Jealous love because we are His own… we are His prized possession.  So  prized that He humbles Himself even further, being born, living as one of us and with us, teaching us through word and example, to the ultimate gift of Himself on the cross.

Which is why the pairing of this reading from Exodus with this Gospel from John is so powerful.  When we think of Jesus’ love for us, hopefully, our minds do immediately center on the Cross.  He lays down His life in the complete, total act of sacrifice – not just for all humanity, for me and you individually, personally.  But as we’re on our way to Jerusalem, and we travel with Jesus through these Gospels, He demonstrates that was not the only day He showed His love for us.  Good Friday wasn’t the only time, the only act.  God who is Love, has loved, loves and will always love.  So we could say that is His essence.  And today, in this Gospel account we get another dramatic glimpse of that Love.

It might not have seemed that way.  We get a picture of an angry Jesus.  Even a violent one who makes a whip of chords is knocking tables over and creating quite a stir.  “The cleansing of the temple” is often seen as one of the final straws that set into motion things that end with Jesus’ arrest, passion, and sentence to death on the Cross.  That the religious leaders and authorities are humiliated and that they have had enough of the fights and debates that have popped up since Jesus’ ministry began.   But Jesus’ reaction is more than just entering into a theological argument over ritual purification, the proper way things are to be conducted…. like had the money changers had the animals another 150 feet away, things would’ve been okay.  Not at all.

Jesus is reacting to their casual ways, the lack of reverence and awe for the Father, for the Father’s house – the temple – which up till then was the only place on earth to encounter God’s very presence, thereby making it the holiest and most sacred place on earth.  When he encounters lukewarmness and indifference on the part of the Chosen People that hurts Jesus.  When he sees such blatant disregard, loopholes being argued to allow for what at best could be described as disrespect and at the worst blasphemy – that enrages Jesus.   But not because He’s worried about the building or violations of protocols.  He is so passionate because He cares for these people.  He cares about their cold-heartedness.  He cares about their lack of care in fulfilling their positions for the people they are purportedly assisting and serving, and for the God that they are lying to themselves they are “loving.”  They probably didn’t even realize how far they had fallen out of love with the Lord, how they were checking off the boxes… doing the minimum… taking Him for granted.

That’s why stumbling on that episode of Friends hit me as hard as it did.  Something as special and sacred as what was meant to be the “marital act” meant to bind a husband and wife in the most unique, intimate, exclusive way was (and is) generally treated without any reverence or respect and simply as a recreational activity… That these relationships, whether the fictional ones on television or the ones among my own friend group, were being treated so casually, taken for granted – that none of my friends, and even myself, were insulted even by the proposition was disappointing in hindsight.  Because that should be the reaction to someone I love, something I’m committing too.  I should’ve said, “joking about my promise of celibacy;” my friends should’ve said, “joking about being unfaithful to my girlfriend, boyfriend, fiancé, husband wife” – that’s not funny – despite how loudly the laugh track from the sitcom playing tells us it is.  Because it’s mocking all of our commitments which as a priest or as a married couple is ultimately about laying down our lives for God in these commitments we all make before His altar… a Husband and wife in laying down their lives to one another, and the priest who is called to lay down his life for the bride which is the Church.

Jesus doesn’t lay down his life on the cross for us in some wimpy defeatist tragedy where things spiraled out of control and God has to fix another one of our mistakes as creation.  The entire Gospel is about Jesus coming to fight for us.   That’s what the cleansing of the temple recalls for us.  Jesus wants us to join Him in engaging in spiritual warfare with Satan and his demonic forces who want to destroy our relationship with God first and then destroy us.  Jesus, the second person of the Triune God of Father, Son and Holy Spirit, clearly has this jealous love for us.  The scriptures today ask us, is it being reciprocated?

More than likely, we realize it’s not.  Not completely.  Not totally.  Just hearing the 10 commandments should be an opportunity for us to go through them as an Examination of conscience.  Seeing all those gaps.  Those places where I’ve made loopholes for myself.  Justified my behaviors.  Created excuses.  Maybe areas where I’ve just become indifferent to.  I’ve shared that a few years ago, I was convicted just reviewing the 10 commandments when I was preparing for Confession that I wasn’t taking “keeping the sabbath holy” seriously which when I was more honest with myself, there were things I could do, things I could avoid if I was more thoughtful and intentional about it.  And so that was a call to repent, to change for me.  What is it for you?  It can be daunting.  It can even be discouraging at times to think about those gaps, those sins I’ve struggled with and keep repeating or worse the ones I’ve even stopped struggling with and just give into.

A few years ago, at the conclusion of World Youth Day, Pope Francis very beautifully said:

“At times in our lives, we aim lower rather than higher.
At those times, it is good to realize that God remains faithful, even obstinate, in His love for us.  The fact is, He loves us even more than we love ourselves.
He believes in us even more than we believe in ourselves.
He is always “cheering us on”; he is our biggest fan.
He is there for us, waiting with patience and hope, even when we turn in on ourselves and brood over our troubles and past injuries.  But such brooding is unworthy of our spiritual stature!  It is a kind of virus infecting and blocking everything; it closes doors and prevents us from getting up and starting over.  God, on the other hand, is hopelessly hopeful!  He believes that we can always get up, and he hates to see us glum and gloomy…don’t be ashamed to bring everything to the Lord in confession, especially your weaknesses, your struggles and your sins.  He will surprise you with his forgiveness and his peace. ”

That’s what this season of Lent is all about—looking at the areas where I’ve become indifferent, going through the motions, even taking God for granted.  But not in a let me feel guilty, ashamed and simply wallow in it.  But to feel Jesus’ passion for us… that He’s fighting for us – will we fight for Him by confronting those sinful areas, repenting of them and going to confession.  To appreciate that God is jealous for us… are we jealous for Him where we strive to conform our lives in a way that proclaims that?