House of Prayer or Den of Thieves?
9th Sunday after Pentecost
The road to hell is paved with good intentions. We wake up one morning and we have such grand ideas of what we’re going to do. We envisage great projects, ways to improve our lives, make ourselves happier. Sometimes, our intentions are truly and supernaturally good, as for instance when we leave the confessional, firmly resolute that we will not commit those same old sins anymore. Or every year, when we begin the season of Lent, fIlled with holy zeal and ready to perform great deeds of penance and fasting.
But then, along the way, something happens. It’s usually not some startling epiphany that, darn it, we’ve had enough, and we’re just going to quit. It more like a gradual reduction of our enthusiasm, an increasing relaxation of the strictness we apply to ourselves. Little by little, our resistance to temptation wanes, our zeal to please God fades, and before we even realize what’s happened, we’re back to our old ways, abandoning ourselves once more to our former way of life, our newly rediscovered quest for sanctity left to wither away before it ever begins to bear fruit.
The truth of what happened is this: It started by God giving us a special grace. The grace of a desire to love and serve God better, to draw closer to him with the yearning to make ourselves more worthy of the love he has shown us. The second step was when our mind corresponded with this grace and gave the necessary instructions to our will, making the appropriate plans, fully intending to follow God’s will by rising to meet the inspiration he has given. Then, finally, when things start getting tough, when the battle against our own poor fallen nature begins to rage like the true war it is, we lose enthusiasm and take a step back.
Remember the brave firefighters and police officers who walked into the flames on 9/11 to save lives, only to die themselves. Are we consumed by the same zeal for duty towards God as they were to their fellow human beings? It’s not so much that we are cowards, fearing the flames and destruction that face us. Fear would at least be a better excuse for turning back. But what is there to fear in doing penance and showing God our respect and love? No, it’s sadly worse than that. It’s more like we’re standing at the foot of those burning towers of the World Trade Center and deciding we just can’t be bothered climbing all those steps to the top. Sure, we might start, and go up a couple of floors. But by the second or third week of Lent, we look up and see how much further we still have to go, and just give up. Simple laziness? Lack of will power? Call it what you will, but it’s not enough and not worthy of our calling.
We see this over and over again in the Old Testament, when God gave countless graces to his chosen people and they’re good for a while. Just a short while. Look at all the ways God helped the Hebrew people escape the slavery of Egypt: the ten plagues, the parting of the Red Sea, the feeding of the people in the wilderness with manna from heaven… They were very happy to take God’s gifts, but as soon as they started getting hot or hungry or frightened or bored, or whenever difficulties arose, they complained, they misbehaved, they even melted down their earrings and built a golden calf to worship. St. Paul reminds the Jews of their feckless behavior in today’s Epistle: “The people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to play.” And in the New Testament, as we see in this morning’s Gospel, the chosen people continued their wicked ways, turning the temple of Jerusalem from a house of prayer into a den of thieves.
This kind of behavior displeases God. In human terms, we may say that it provokes him to sadness and even anger. He is especially unhappy with us when we actually dare congratulate ourselves for our good intentions alone, intentions that are never brought to fruition. We’re very proud of ourselves when we come up with a list of all the things we’ve given up for Lent, but we push it as far from our conscience as we can when we cheat on ourselves and find an excuse to sneak a quick break from the penance. These secret relapses do not go unnoticed by the all-seeing eye of God. And instead of being his beloved subjects, we are now nothing more than a disappointment to him.
This is why, when our Lord comes near unto Jerusalem in today’s Gospel, he beholds the city and weeps over it. He weeps because the Jews, his beloved chosen people, are missing the greatest opportunity of all, the highest grace ever given man, the realization that they have, dwelling in their midst, the Word made flesh. With this grace comes their invitation to accept what he offers them, a New and Everlasting Covenant drawn up in the Precious Blood of their Messiah. How many of them saw the miracles, the healings, of our Lord, but failed to realize what they meant? How many of them heard his teachings but failed to apply them to their own lives? For many of the Jews, these all-important truths were hidden from their eyes because of their hardened hearts, because of the attachment to their sins, their open defiance of the law of charity. But unfortunately, for so many more, the failure to accept their Messiah was based on the same lack of zeal, the same laziness of spirit, that affects so many of us today and prevents us from becoming the saints we belong being.
This kind of lukewarmness saddened the soul of our Lord so much that he sweat blood in the Garden of Gethsemane over mankind’s indifference to his sacrifice. Even his three most beloved apostles did nothing but fall asleep as he sweat that blood in his anguish. We are no better.
Let’s look to our own hearts. We may not be great saints. But dwelling in that heart of ours, if we are in the state of grace is God himself. Our heart is the temple of the Holy Ghost. Just as Christ our Lord dwelled with his chosen people all those many years ago, he dwells today in the divine form of the Holy Ghost within us. And Jesus beholds us, just as he beheld the Holy City of Jerusalem, and he weeps as he beholds us. For have we truly known the time of our visitation? Do we act on the inspirations of that Holy Ghost within our soul? Or have we turned that temple of the Holy Ghost from a House of Prayer into a Den of Thieves? Have we desecrated our temple by letting in those thieves, those seven deadly sins, which would steal away our commitment to holiness by replacing them with an ever-greater attachment to our own self-interest, our own happiness and smug self-satisfaction?
Let’s not forget that just a few years after the Agony in the Garden, the Holy City of Jerusalem was utterly destroyed by the Romans. The people of the city were laid even with the ground, and their children with them. Not one stone was left upon another. And why? Because they knew not the time of their visitation. Let’s not forget this, that after God is done being “sad”, he will wreak out his wrath upon us. He will look upon our desecrated temple that should have been the Temple of the Holy Ghost, and he will turn the anger of his judgment upon us. Is this what we have to look forward to when we die, just because we can’t be bothered to be holy?
Surely, and especially in light of the times we live in, it is time to do something about it. To realize once and for all that when God gives us the grace to make us want to become better men and women, it isn’t a game that has no consequences. We must act on those graces, and continue acting on them, never failing in our initial enthusiasm but persevering in the face of all adversity, hardship, lack of fervor, and whatever other temptations try to lead us off the path. Hopefully, for us to persevere, it is enough for us to know we wound the Sacred Heart of Jesus by our spinelessness. But if not, then surely we will be moved by the fear of his wrath. Our infinitely merciful Saviour is also, let’s remember, infinitely just. Our Judge will weep for us, but he will also one day drive us out of the House of God once and for all unless we keep coming back to him with renewed fervor and love. “Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall.”