Why Lent is more than a dietary shift.

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Every year during Lent as far back as I can remember, I bristled at the notion of giving up some kind of food. 

Because Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day fall on the same day, Catholic Bishops are urging their faithful to give up steaks and chocolate during the forty days of Lent. Supposedly, this kind of abstinence helps identify with Jesus’ suffering during the last week of his life.

Who am I to quibble with the Bishops of the church? I am a nobody. But I will quibble just a bit. I would ask that we go a bit deeper and instead of saying no to certain foods, focus our Lenten journey on honesty with Christ. 

Jesus desires in Luke 5– truth and honesty in the inner being(Psalm 51:6). 

But in Luke 5, only a few people seem concerned with honesty:

Peter: Luke 5:8- but when Simon Peter saw it (the large catch of fish), he fell down at Jesus’ knees, saying, Depart from me, for I am a sinful man, O Lord. Peter is honest about the moral and spiritual condition of his life. His anguished plea reminds us of Isaiah’s anguished plea in (Is 6:5) where he said,  “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”” Now, that is brutal honesty.

The leper: Luke 5:12- Once, when he was in one of the cities, there was a man covered with leprosy. When he saw Jesus, he bowed with his face to the ground and begged him, “Lord, if you choose, you can make me clean.” This was more than a cry for physical healing. This was a cry for community. To have leprosy was to be an outcast from family, temple, synagogue, friends, work, life (click here for more details). To be healed and cleansed is to be part of a community. He was brutally honest with Jesus. “I need your help, and if you are willing, please help me, I am sick, and I am lonely.”

The crowds:- Jesus asked the leper, “now that you are healed, please go show yourself to the priest so that he can confirm your healing and please don’t tell anyone what I did for you.”

Of course, he didn’t. It is hard to keep good news from bursting out. Instead, Luke records,
“But now, even more, the report about him went abroad, and great crowds gathered to hear him and to be healed of their infirmities.” Luke 5:15

Levi and his tax collecting friends:- “After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” And leaving everything, he rose and followed him.” ‭‭Luke‬ ‭5:27-28‬ ‭ESV‬‬

Dishonest people
Luke presents a contrast between the common, everyday people of Jesus’s day and the cultured, religious crowd. They weren’t honest with Jesus. For Luke, the religious community were onlookers. They knew that Jesus was unique. To them, he was a spectacle to behold, a sideshow that you didn’t want to miss. But nothing deeper than that. They heard him teach, they saw him heal people but, stood at an objective distance, the way scientists try to observe and test their hypotheses. And we know this to be true based on the following observations:

1. After four friends of a crippled man went literally above and beyond to help their friend to Jesus, and after Jesus forgave the man of his sins, here’s their reaction:

Vss. 21-22: Then the scribes and the Pharisees began to question, “Who is this who is speaking blasphemies? Who can forgive sins but God alone?” When Jesus perceived their questionings, he answered them, “Why do you raise such questions in your hearts?

For them, Jesus was not a person to worship and solicit help, but a theological challenge to be shamed and dismissed. That’s not honesty in the inner being.

2. The most glaring example is that of Levi who left everything to follow Jesus. Tax collectors made a good living. The money earned fleecing their victims was worth the cultural rejection.  The same thing with fishermen who made a better-than-average average income (even if they had had a bad night-Luke 5:5). Leaving these jobs was an act of radical commitment that carried significant economic repercussions.

Levi did not give up chocolate and steaks to follow him, he left everything. Instead of joining the party and celebrating Levi’s turning away from the shameful, corrupt, tax collecting shakedown of his people, the religious leaders stood at a distance and sneered. The Pharisees and their scribes were complaining to his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners (Luke 5;30)?” The implication being, we don’t do that, ergo, we are holy, and our lives are intact. It’s dishonest to separate oneself from other people or position oneself above and beyond other people.

It’s not surprising that Luke 15:1 says: “Now the tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to hear him.” ‭‭Is it even possible to draw near to Jesus without being honest with him?

What would honesty with Jesus look like?

This Ash Wednesday, Christ, the doctor of the soul, who sees us from the inside, asks us to be honest about the state of our lives.

Be honest about your need for prayer

The need for less religion and more empathy for others. Let’s be honest that we have too much religion and not enough empathy for others. You have heard of the Christians who go into restaurants after church on Sundays, eat the big meal, and then leave tracts telling people to come to Jesus instead of leaving that 20 or 25% tip. Can tracts buy baby formula, diapers and keep the heat on? Too much religion and not enough love for people. 

The need for repentance. If Jesus walked up to your front door, would you try to stall while you run and hide your idols?

The need for spiritual maturity: Are we growing up? Are we changing? Are we having victory over certain besetting habits? Are we growing in our understanding of the gospel that saves us? Or are we still the same year after year?

The need for a more Christ Like attitude. Can we be honest about our attitude? Sarcastic, critical, mean-spirited racist, sexist, moody, holding a grudge for being slighted or overlooked? Always concerned about what people think about us, instead of resting in what Christ says about us? Are we willing to step out of ourselves and serve others? The religious leaders simply could not see that Jesus was about prayer, healing and touching lepers, healing the cripple, Jesus was all about people.

With all respects to the Bishops, please don’t give up steak and chocolate this Lent. This is not a dietary shift. Give up your life and like Peter, and the common people of Jesus’ day, be honest for a change. That’s the beginning of a transformed life.

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