by Jim Forest
All these kingdoms I will bestow on you if you prostrate yourself in homage before me. ~Matthew 4:10
Jesus’s last temptation was to trade worship for power. Satan is shown as a power broker. His message: “Center your life on the prince of worldly power, and I will let you share in this power.”
Making the border crossing into Lent is an opportunity to leave the centers of power behind and to surrender powerful ambitions. At first glance, it seems like opting for weakness. Satan shows Jesus “all the kingdoms of the world in their magnificence” — an impressive, vast, dazzling vision. But the problem with long-distance viewing is that the huge swallows up the tiny. From the top of the Empire State Building, human beings look like ants. From the height of a satellite, a city looks like an ant hill. Human beings are lost in the dust.
In the life of Jesus, human beings aren’t ants. They are ordinary people with names and faces, some with withered limbs and unseeing eyes, some with dead children, some with half-dead consciences, all wounded, all needing forgiveness. But limbs can’t be strengthened, eyes can’t be healed, children can’t be raised, and sins can’t be forgiven from a mountaintop or a space station.
Entering the City of Lent, our eyes adjust to a dimmer light. We gradually discover the beauty of a subtler kind of landscape. Longing to participate in the peace of Christ, we learn to turn away from whatever blinds us to each other’s faces and wounds. In rejecting the kingdom of this world and taking on the work of healing and forgiveness, we find to our astonishment that what we thought was weakness is instead a work of great courage and strength.
The Dutch write and philosopher Abel Herzberg tells a story of a rabbi who, upon entering a room in his home, saw his son deep in prayer. “In the corner,” he writes, “stood a cradle with a crying baby. The rabbi asks his son, ‘Can’t you hear? There’s a baby crying in this room.’ The son said, ‘Father, I was lost in God.’ And the rabbi said, ‘He who is lost in God can see the very fly crawling up the wall'” (Abel Herzberg, Brieven aan mijn kleinzoon [Letters to my Grandson], Amsterdam: Querido, 1985).
Jesus is drawn to those whom others prefer not to see — like the woman “with a bad name” who followed him into a Pharisee’s house and washed his feet with her tears. “I tell you,” said Jesus, “that her sins, her many sins, must have been forgiven or she would not have shown such great love. It is the one who is forgiven little who shows little love.” Then he said to her, “Your sins are forgiven.” (Luke 7:47)
The unforgiven person is trapped in destruction. The person who wants to participate in the peace of Christ has to become deeply sensitive to the need, often unrecognized and rarely discussed, for forgiveness. Peace work is healing work. Healing is tied to forgiveness.
- What “centers of power” draw you most strongly? How do these centers affect your perception of others?
- Do you agree with the rabbi in Herzberg’s story that a person lost in God “can see the very fly crawling up the wall”? Who in your life exemplifies this sensitivity?
This reflection was taken from Passage to Love: Lent 1990, by Jim Forest, former Secretary General of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, editor of The Catholic Worker, and biographer of Dorothy Day. The booklet was published by Pax Christi USA in 1990.