Think again – “I fear no evil, for you are with me”

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‘The devil can quote scripture for his purpose. An evil soul producing holy testimony is like a wicked one with a smiling cheek, a beautiful rotten apple in the heart. Oh, what a beautiful outward lie! These lines from the Merchant of Venice suggest that Shakespeare was familiar with the story told in tomorrow’s gospel, the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. In an exchange, the devil tempts Jesus with words from Psalm 91 which also feature in tomorrow’s liturgy to reassure him that no harm will come to him because God will ‘command his angels to keep you’ – an expectation to which many cling in troubled times only to be disappointed and wonder why God has let them down.

God does not allow bad things to happen in the sense of sanctioning them; its promise is not that of immunity from trouble but that of solidarity. The psalmist explains, “Even though I walk through the darkest valley, I fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff comfort me. God’s promise is a way through trouble rather than a way out of it, which is evident in the events of Holy Week followed by Easter.

Misuse or misunderstanding of Scripture is an ever-present temptation. It allows for a tailor-made religion that can conceal personal biases and promote personal interests despite being contrary to the teaching of Jesus Christ. This is found in white supremacists in America and Europe who justify extremist language and lewd activities by claiming to uphold Christian values. Former US President Jimmy Carter recognized the threat to the integrity of the gospel and the good of society in his book Our Endangered Values ​​(2006). He explains their rationale: “Since I am aligned with God, I am superior and my beliefs must prevail, and anyone who disagrees with me is inherently inferior.” Carter, a man of faith, saw this as a challenge to Christians who believe that following Christ points in the direction described by St. Paul as “a more excellent way” – the way of love. He wrote: “This trend (extremism) has created intense religious conflicts all over the world. Christians who resist the tilt towards fundamentalism and who truly follow the nature, actions and words of Jesus Christ should embrace people who are different from us with our care, generosity, forgiveness, compassion and selfless love.

While it’s easy to recognize and condemn the ugliness of sectarian and racial prejudice, Shakespeare’s reference to “a wicked man with a smiling cheek” suggests a wider audience. We all like to make a good impression and present a positive image, but the reality is that we alter gospel expectations to suit our personal interests and desires. For example, we demand that politicians take care of the homeless while insisting that they do not raise our taxes. We say immigrants and refugees should be welcomed but not in our city or our street. We agree that God’s wonderful creation is threatened by our way of life, but we’re not ready to go without that extra foreign vacation or we’re too busy to walk to the local store. We are like Saint Paul who, writing to the Romans, said: “For I have the desire to do good, but I cannot do it. Because I don’t do the good that I want to do, but the bad that I don’t want to do, I continue to do.

The Christian life is a process of becoming and there will be times when we more faithfully follow the path of Christ and times when we do not. But these lines from John O’Donoghue suggest that it is worth trying to persevere: “Scrape from your heart / All sense of yourself / And your wavering light… If you remain generous, / The time will come well; / And you will find your feet / Again on fresh pastures of promise, / Where the air will be sweet / And reddened with the beginning.

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