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Tough love

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ON THIS first Sunday of Lent, our Gospel teaches us the spiritual discipline of dealing with trials and temptations, the way Jesus did when he stayed for 40 days in the desert. I think it is the proper biblical background to that line in the Our Father where we say, “And lead us not into temptation.” Pope Francis himself once reacted to some translations of that part in the Lord’s Prayer. He asks, “Does God lead us to temptation? What kind of father is he who wants his children to fall?”

Even before Pope Francis raised the issue, I have asked that question myself. I understand that the CBCP had already come up with what they called an ecumenical version of the Lord’s Prayer that revised the translation of that line “And lead us not to temptation…” to “Do not bring us to the test…” Unfortunately, the New English Missal reverted again to the traditional formulation.

Now there are people who are asking the bishops to return to that ecumenical version “Do not bring us to the test…” and the matter is still under discussion. Pope Francis notes that the Spanish seems to be better: “No nos dejes caer…” Instead of “do not LEAD us, it becomes “Do not LEAVE us to fall into temptation.”

How is that part really supposed to be translated from the original Greek (kai mē eisénegkēs eis peirasmón)? Are we begging God not to let us undergo trials in life? Today’s Gospel reading makes me doubt that very much. I think we’re just asking God not to abandon us when we face trials or tests in life—which are to be taken for granted. In fact, today’s Gospel is even much stronger: “The Spirit DROVE Jesus out into the desert.”

Not only does the Spirit allow Jesus to be tested; he actually “pushes” him into it, like a good coach who drives his trainee into higher and more difficult levels of training. Or like a father who allows his son to deal with tough realities in life precisely because he loves him.

God, as it were, is saying, Because I love you, I will not baby you. I will not overprotect you from trials because I want you to be strong. In English, they call this TOUGH LOVE. It reminds me of St. Teresa of Avila who once complained and asked God why he allowed her to go through so much suffering. Apparently, when Jesus told her in reply, “Teresa, that’s how I treat my friends” Teresa responded, “No wonder you have so few friends!”

Jesus’ desert experience is an illustration of tough love. He is made to go through discipline in his training because he has to fight the evil one IN THE FLESH (in his humanity), meaning—not relying on divine power. The devil is tempting him precisely to use divine prerogative. But the Spirit wants him to learn to deal with it as an ordinary human being would.

The Gospel also says Jesus “was with wild beasts in the desert, and angels ministered to him”. Don’t parents teach their kids to be cautious in their dealings with strangers? No doubt, there are many friendly and well-meaning ones among them. But some of them can be mean or out to fool you or get you into trouble. Some are like gentle doves; others are like poisonous snakes. I imagine God as a father who tells his child, “You just have to learn to deal with different types of people, because I will not always be around to protect you.” Haven’t we all had to deal with people who are mean, people who behave like wolves in sheep’s clothing? Sometimes even parents have to prepare their kids to deal with such situations by themselves using their own prudence and wise judgment.

Tough love also involves a lot of mentoring in the determination to continue pursuing one’s goals in life even in the midst of adversity. Mark tells us the arrest of John the Baptist did not prevent Jesus from carrying on with his mission. The Spirit makes sure that, as part of our spiritual training or discipline, we do not get bogged down by tough times or wallow in self-pity in times of trials or difficulties.

St. Paul is giving counsel to the young leader Timothy in 2 Timothy 4:2. He says, “proclaim the word; be persistent whether it is convenient or inconvenient; convince, reprimand, encourage through all patience and teaching.”

He definitely knows what he is speaking about. In 2 Corinthians 11:23-28, he recalls all the things that he had had to endure in his life and ministry. How he underwent “far greater labors, far more imprisonments, far worse beatings, and numerous brushes with death.”

He gets even more specific in the verses that follow. He says, “Five times… I received 39 lashes. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I passed a night and a day on the deep; on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, through cold and exposure.” (Vv24-27). People usually refer to these as “make or break experiences. St. Paul tells us precisely this; just when he thought these trials would break him, they actually made him even stronger, by God’s grace.

And so, you would understand why he declares in 2Cor 4:8-10, “We are afflicted in every way, but not constrained; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our body.”

(Homily for the 1st Sunday of Lent, 21 February 2021, Mk 1:12-15)

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