I expect that you’re all as infuriated, as I am, when we hear of these millionaires with private bank accounts managing to avoid paying tax. But our job as Christians is not to moan about other people’s sins but to set an example of what a good life can be. As St Paul tells us today: “Try to be helpful to everyone at all times, not anxious for (our) own advantage but for the advantage of everybody else.” (1 Cor 10:31-11:1). Our temptation is to think, like those millionaires, that our property, our food, our clothes, our toys, our houses, all our possessions, actually belongs to us. But, of course, however hard we have worked for the things that we own, we wouldn’t have any of them without God who makes all this possible. And God gives us the things of the earth so that we may use them for the common good, the good of all, not just to please ourselves.
Avarice, greed and gluttony : these are too often failings that people laugh about, when what we should do is realise how dangerous such desires are. Indeed it is these desires that are the most frequent cause of war. If there is oil in a country then people will fight about it. Now, some Christians think that the solution to this is to own as little as possible. That’s certainly the road of monks and nuns; but they will tell you that they can get just as wound up about the few things they own as we can. Yes, few of us, can get to the point that Jesus advocates where we are free of such worries. Remember what he sets as the ideal we should aim for? “Do not be anxious about your life, what you shall eat or what you shall drink, nor about your body, what you shall put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? ……. Do not be anxious, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?” (Matt 6:25-32)
Once again we see that by setting the standard really high, Jesus prevents us from doing what the so-called good people did in his time, thinking they were good, and looking down on “other” people whom they could condemn as “sinners”. I was very pleased the other day when someone told me that these Homilies on the moral teaching of the Church had made them aware of failings that they never though they had. That’s surely a good preparation for Ash Wednesday this week, so that as we come forward to be ashed, we can be more aware of the areas of our life where we particularly need God to help us. And for almost all of us one of those crucial areas will be how we think about the things we possess.
The traditional teaching on how to cope with this is to use the things we own as if they were not ours, so that we are in charge of our possessions rather than our possessions being in charge of us. But we all know how hard this is. We can be generous yes, but only to a certain point ; for if being generous begins to affect something that is really precious to us, something that it would really hurt to be without, then we quickly change and all our generosity and kindness goes out the window.
One purpose of prayer then, especially in Lent, is to ask God to help us identify those things that we most cling onto, and to work out ways in which we might be less reliant on them in the future. We have to look at ourselves with God honestly, even brutally. It’s so easy to make excuses for ourselves, not least because we want to think of ourselves as basically quite nice people. That’s actually what giving up things in Lent is all about; for if we are just giving up some food like chocolate, we may be doing it more as a way of improving our waist line than really dealing with our desires, and then we are back in the trap of selfishness. Yes, I will give up cake again this Lent, but I have yet to see this actually helping me to be more self-controlled the rest of the year!
One of the crucial areas where we need to examine ourselves is in the use of our money. Those of us who are at Mass regularly do at least have the Collections coming round to keep us in the habit of giving some of our money to others. But it really ought to go further than that. We need to think hard not just about how much we give to the Church and to the Charities like CAFOD, but how much we give away in total. Caring for the poor in one way or another is absolutely central to the Christian faith. It can never be seen as an extra. Jesus chose to identify himself with the poor of the world, even those who were outcasts like the leper we hear of in the Gospel today, (Mark 1:40-45) and although we can never be like Christ, we are meant to imitate him as much as we can.
If we do not agonise about those who are less fortunate than we are. If we blot out the sad news of suffering people in various parts of the world, and say there is nothing we can do, then we are failing as Christians. We may think that the small amount we can afford to give, faced with these immense human tragedies, is hardly worth giving, but Jesus would point us to the poor widow popping her few coins into the collection, and tell us that her gift is more important than the large gifts of richer people.
And this should also affect our attitude to taxation. If we moan about our tax bill, we are in danger of forgetting what it is for, of thinking the Health Service, the Schools, even the potholes in our roads are someone else’s problem. Remember what St Paul said today, “Whatever you eat, whatever you drink, whatever you do at all, do it for the glory of God.” There’s always some new area in our life where we are failing to think like this. Let’s ask God to help us once again this Lent, so that our self-examination will help us, as St Paul says “to lead a life worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God. (Col :10)