It’s tremendously easy to convince ourselves that the source of disorder, distrust, and destruction in the world is “out there.” Sin is something others do, or other groups do. So I was struck by Ash Wednesday’s readings anew: the focus of Lent is not on “out there,” but on us. We have sinned. It is our hearts that are in need of conversion. This is true on a personal level, for each person, but it’s also true on a group level. We see in the prophet Joel and the words of St. Paul a call to God’s people – not to their enemies – to repent, turn around, be reconciled to God.
Yet there is an appropriate sense that evil is “out there.” In today’s first reading, we hear of God’s liberation of Israel from the evil of slavery to the Egyptians, the ones who “maltreated and oppressed us.” And in the Gospel, we have the classic story of Jesus’s temptations in the desert, where it is clear that the enemy, the Evil One, is a force in the world. So, in both the natural and supernatural sense, evil really is “out there.”
But today’s readings might also remind us of our own sinfulness and need for conversion. In the first reading, Moses insists on giving God the glory for making the people. God did this, their trust in God meant that the Lord heard their cries. How often do we trust not in God, but in our “horses and chariots,” the common biblical image for the Egyptian’s trust in the work of their own hand? Similarly, in the Gospel, the devil presents a set of deals. How often do we make deals with the devil – for noble ends, no doubt – instead of showing the faithfulness to the work of the Father that Jesus shows?
Group-righteousness gets more dangerous in a violent time. This Lent, let us not give into the temptation to self-righteousness or group-righteousness. Let us see these temptations to place our trust somewhere other than God, and convert our hearts to the sort of trust that Jesus showed.