Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Lent, Year B.
If someone asked you to write a spiritual autobiography, what sort of stories would you include? What key moments would you focus on? Could you do it in four pages or less? Every year, over the first four Sundays of Lent, the Church offers us a sketch of salvation history—Israel’s spiritual autobiography, if you will—in four readings from the Old Testament. This year, the Church began by reminding us of three different promises, or covenants, that God made. On the First Sunday of Lent, God promised Noah that He would never again destroy the earth by a flood. On the Second Sunday, God promised to bless Abraham and make his descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky. These first two covenants were made unconditionally, without any strings attached. Even if the descendants of Noah and Abraham were sinful, God would keep His promises to them. Last Sunday, we were reminded of the Mosaic covenant, centered around the Ten Commandments. This covenant was made conditionally. If Israel followed the commandments, they would be blessed; if they did not, they would be punished. Finally, on this Sunday, we hear how Israel did not keep the commandments and were punished with seventy years of exile.
But why exactly were they punished? What specific commandment did they fail to keep? And why did the punishment last seventy years? Interestingly, our first reading points to Israel’s failure to keep the so-called “sabbath of the land.” As part of the Mosaic covenant, Israel was supposed to let their tillable land, the land on which they could grow crops, lie uncultivated and unused every seven years as well as every fifty years. God’s people were supposed to let the land have a “sabbath year,” a rest year, on a regular basis, but they failed to do so. And for every year they failed to do so—apparently seventy years in total—they had to spend a year in exile.
Now this might seem like a rather harsh punishment for a rather trivial sin, but it actually points to a much deeper problem in Israel’s relationship with God. The only reason for not keeping the sabbath—whether the weekly sabbath or the sabbath of the land—is if you, either as an individual or as a people, have placed work, money, possessions, and/or pleasure above God. Not keeping the sabbath is rooted in idolatry, in valuing and worshiping something more than God.
I’d like to suggest that our own failure to keep the sabbath points to the same problem. Now as Christians, we are no longer bound to observe the “sabbath of the land” every seven and every fifty years. But we are still bound to observe the weekly sabbath, which, because of Jesus’ Resurrection, has been transferred from Saturday to Sunday. How we view our Sundays, and how we spend our Sundays, is a good indication of whether we have fallen into some kind of idolatry.
How do we view our Sundays? If we work or are in school Monday through Friday, the temptation is to view Sunday as just another Saturday: just another day not to work, or not be in class; just another day to rest and recharge so we can go back to work or school on Monday refreshed and reenergized. The problem with that point of view is that it gets everything backwards. It says that the real point of our lives is to work and study so that we can get good jobs, make good money, buy good possessions, and enjoy good amounts of pleasure. This is an idolatrous point of view. It’s the same idolatrous point of view that drove the Israelites to ignore the “sabbath of the land.” If they didn’t let the tillable land lie fallow, they could grow more crops, make more money, build nicer houses, and live more pleasurable lives. But while all those things are good in themselves, they are not the greatest good. The greatest good is to share in God’s own life, which is what God calls us to do on the sabbath. Every other good on the face of the earth is meant to be in service of that greater good: sharing in God’s own life. The jobs we work, the money we make, the possessions we buy, the pleasures we enjoy, are for the sake of this greater good. Monday through Saturday are the for the sake of Sunday, not the other way around. If we get this wrong, we get everything else wrong.
Just like Israel’s failure to observe the “sabbath of the land,” our failure to observe the weekly sabbath is no trivial matter. To misunderstand the purpose of Sunday is to misunderstand the purpose of our entire earthly lives. And, more than that, it is to misunderstand heaven. I don’t know if you’ve ever realized this, but every week is like a human lifespan in miniature. There’s a beginning of the week, a middle of the week, and an end of the week, just like there is a beginning, middle, and end of our lives. The other six days of the week represent our lives on earth. But Sunday represents our lives in heaven. And so, to treat the other six days as more important than Sunday, is to treat our lives on earth as more important than our lives in heaven. It is trivialize heaven. And it is to trivialize what we celebrate on Sunday—the Holy Mass—which is meant to be a foretaste of the life of heaven, when we will share perfectly in God’s own life. What we do the other six days of the week is meant to be for the sake of what we do on Sunday, just like what we do in our earthly lives is meant to be the sake of our heavenly lives. We study hard and work hard not for their own sakes, but so that we can share in God’s own life, which is what we were ultimately made for.
So how do we spend our Sundays? Does what we do on Sunday reflect an idolatrous point of view on life, where money, possessions, and pleasure are the real goals? Or does what do reflect a heavenly point of view, where sharing in God’s own life is the real goal? Choosing to go to Mass on Sunday matters. Choosing to pray and practice spiritual and corporal works of mercy on Sunday matters. Choosing to spend time with family and to care for relatives on Sunday matters. Choosing not to do unnecessary work oneself or making others do unnecessary work on Sunday matters. Some people have to work on Sundays because of cultural activities like sports and dining and social necessities like healthcare and law enforcement. But we are still obligated as Christians to do our part in ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to keep the sabbath as it’s meant to be kept (CCC n. 2187).
My challenge to all of us this week is this: examine how you view Sunday and what you chose to do on Sunday. The stakes are high. It’s not just a matter of living in an earthly promised land or suffering an earthly exile for seventy years; it’s a matter of living in a heavenly promised land or suffering an eternal exile. It’s a matter of worshiping the true God, and sharing in His own life, or engaging in some form of idolatry. Sunday is our chance to begin living the life of heaven now. And if we do not begin to live it now, it’s unlikely that will begin to live it later. So, let’s live a better Sunday: this week, next week, and every week following. Amen.