Friday, March 16, 2012

The Price Paid for Love

Fourth Sunday of Lent Year B

Today’s gospel reminds me of the famous short story by O Henry, ‘The Gift of the Magi’. Despite its misleading title, the story isn’t about the wise men who visited the infant Jesus at Christmas. Rather it is about a young newly married couple, Della and Jim. Both deeply in love but also cursed with poverty. But each had a prized possession for which they were extremely proud: Della had the longest and most beautiful hair in all New York and Jim possessed a magnificent gold pocket-watch, given him by his father.

Christmas was drawing near, and Jim and Della began to think what presents they could afford to give each other. Della knew that Jim needed a chain for that gold pocket watch and Jim felt that only a jeweled hair comb would do justice to groom those beautiful locks of Della’s. Finally, feeling helpless with the little savings they possessed both resorted to extreme measures to acquire the money to finance their respective gifts. Unbeknownst to the other, Della sold her hair in order to buy the gold chain whereas Jim pawned his watch in order to purchase a comb for Della. When the gifts were finally opened, they realized that both had been willing to part with their most prized possession to acquire a gift of value for the other – a chain for the watch that had already been pawned, and a comb for the hair that had already been shorn and sold. The irony of the story demonstrated that the best Christmas presents were ones paid with the price of love and great sacrifice.

If you felt that this was a great story of love and sacrifice, then you’ll be balled over by today’s gospel. God did not pay the price of love with a jeweled comb or a gold pocket watch chain. He paid it with the price of his Son’s life. “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be lost but may have eternal life.” This oft repeated text has certainly lost much of its impact on its readers. There is no doubt that this is a definitive statement about the extent of God’s love. But it also speaks to us of the true value and worth of our lives which we often discount.

Perhaps, the most frequent doubt people have about God, is not with regards to his existence but about the measure of his love. When we examine our behaviour and actions, we can recognize our lack of belief in God’s love for us. Whenever we sin, we forget this truth about ourselves. The root of sin is this: we sin when we believe that God’s love for us is not enough. In other words, when we sin we doubt God’s love for us. When we sin we call God a liar. When we sin, we claim that there is something more important than what God can give to us. We give in to the temptation that we must supplement the inadequate love of God with other things – material possessions, popularity or power.

Sin finds a parallel in our psycho-emotional state. Many people generally do not feel good about themselves. They harbour thoughts that they are not beautiful enough, not smart enough, not loving enough. They often suffer from a poor self-image. Because of this low estimation of themselves, they often are also critical of others and easily find fault with them. There is some sick cycle being played out – they criticize and belittle others with the hope that they will feel bigger and more superior.

We get angry with others for hurtful words and actions and find it hard to forgive them because of the same reason. Other’s comments and criticism shake our already poor image of ourselves. People find it hard to forgive because they find it hard to forgive themselves. If we are harsh in judging ourselves we will also be harsh in judging others.

Many people also try to please others – their parents, their spouses, their children – by doing whatever is asked of them, even when it makes them miserable and unhappy. Many of us also try to please God. Following the commandments and penances are performed without much internal freedom. If they are done, it is to appease a capricious God who seeks to heap heavy taxes on his people. St. Paul reminds us in the second reading that “it is by grace that you have been saved, through faith; not by anything of your own, but by a gift from God; not by anything that you have done, so that nobody can claim the credit.”

This is it: We are saved by God because he loves us. We are saved not because we deserve it. We don’t deserve it because we are sinners. We are saved not because we have earned it. Love and salvation can never be earned. This is the extent of the love of God – that he saved us despite our sins and not because we were good. God came not to condemn us but to save us. Today’s gospel reassures us of this: “For God sent his Son into the world not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved.” This is our destiny. This is our dignity. This is the real story of the greatest love the world has ever known – a love paid with the price of one’s life – the life of God. How then should we respond to this insight? Our thoughts go back to the First Sunday of Lent, to the message of Christ which began all this – the good news of salvation. In this message, Jesus summarises it simply in two words - “Repent” and “Believe”. Repent from your sins and believe in the good news of God’s salvation.

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