THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT (B)
The moral law is restrictive but not in the way you might think. The moral law is restrictive in the way that guard rails are restrictive. It is there to keep us on the right road, to help us avoid driving headlong off of a cliff. There are some roads on the Blue Ridge Parkway I would be terrified to drive on if there were not protective guard rails. But because they are there I feel safe and so am more free to enjoy the scenic highway. So the moral law allows us to more freely live good and holy lives.
Our Catholic moral teaching is based on the natural law. The Ten Commandments belong to this natural law tradition. So what is the natural law? In a nutshell, natural law morality is based upon human nature. There are things which are appropriate and fitting with human nature (morally good actions), and things which run counter to our human nature (morally evil actions). The "thou shalt nots" of the Ten Commandments warn us away from actions which are beneath our human dignity.
Buy a new microwave and it will come with a set of instructions. In those instructions will be a warning page with a list of things not to do. Doing those things would be bad, not because they offend the manufacturer, but because they will cause damage to the microwave and prevent it from functioning as it should. You have a choice. You can ignore the instructions and hope you don't break your new microwave, or you can heed the warnings given by the people who made the microwave and have a much easier time of using it.
For us, the Ten Commandments are like that warning page. The reason immoral acts are bad are not because they offend God, but because they are bad for us. They go against our nature and harm our human dignity. St. Thomas Aquinas points out that "the only way we offend God is by acting against our own good" (Summa Contra Gentiles III, 122). Our sins do offend God. He is offended because our sins cause us harm, and He loves us. He loves us so much that He sent His only begotten Son to save us from our sins (Jn 3:16).
Commenting on today's gospel reading, wherein Jesus drives the money changers from the Temple, the third century theologian Origin notes that Jesus "always begins by reforming abuses and purifying from sin; both when He visits His Church and when He visits the Christian soul" (Homily on St. John, 1). Like the money changers in His Father's house, Jesus desires to drive out sin from our hearts, so that we, too, may be fitting houses for the Father. It behooves us to reflect on our sins, especially during this season of Lent, so that we can allow Jesus to drive that evil out of the hidden corners of our lives.
Most of us are not used to reflecting on sin. Thinking about our immoral actions makes us feel guilty, and guilt doesn't feel good. Pain does not feel good, either, but it can be useful if it gets us to stop doing the thing that is causing us pain. The same is true of guilt. It is a good thing if it leads to repentance, which is the first step of accepting Jesus's offer of redemption. You cannot repent from a sin of which you are not aware. Some sins may be obvious to us, but other things we may not even realize are sinful because the judgment of our conscience has been clouded. There are sins of commission (things we do), as well as sins of omission (things we should have done but didn't).
A great aid to identifying the sins in your life is an examination of conscience. Many holy people have composed these lists of guiding questions meant to help us reflect on our own lives and conduct. Most examinations are based on the Ten Commandments. The USCCB has a very short examination on their web site. Here is a somewhat longer (but still short) examination written by Fr. John Trigilio. Most any Catholic prayer book will have an examination of conscience. Doing an examen at the end of each day is a useful tool to help keep your life oriented toward Christ.
Making an examination of conscience helps us to get past the surface of the commandments and to uncover their heart, as Jesus does. The commandment says not to murder. Jesus tells us not to hate (Mt 5:22). The commandment says not to commit adultery. Jesus tells us not to lust (Mt 5:28). Jesus shows us the spirit of the commandments -- a spirit of love.
Our gospel today ends with this poignant phrase. Jesus "did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He Himself understood it well" (Jn 2:25). Jesus is the perfect man and so He embodies human nature perfectly, untainted by sin. Jesus knows us better than we know ourselves. He is our Creator and our Redeemer. As the author of human nature, He knows best what is good for us, and what will bring us everlasting joy. A good examination of conscious, followed by sacramental reconciliation (confession) helps us to see ourselves in the light of Jesus, warts and all; as one fallen, but one He desires to redeem.
Let us pray this Lent for the grace to know Jesus more intimately and to follow Him more closely, so that we may come closer to being the beautiful saints He made us to be.