Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent

Moses receives the Ten Commandments: by Marc Chagall
Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent

Exodus 20:1-3, 7-8, 12-17
1 Corinthians 1:22-25
Mark 3:1-8a, 13-15

I recall reading, some years ago, about a study comparing differences
in how American and Japanese parents raise their children.
Part of the study was about what parents from the two cultures
hoped for their children and their future.
In response to one question,
most American parents answered,
“I hope my children will be -- happy,”
while most Japanese parents answered,
“I hope my children will be -- good.”

That doesn’t mean that the American parents
’t want good children,
or that Japanese parents
didn’t want happy children.
But there’s certainly a difference between the two,
revealing something important about how these two cultures
regard life and its experiences and its purpose.

That same difference might also be helpful
as we look at the 10 commandments in today’s first scripture
and how they influence our lives, our experiences
and our understanding of the purpose of our existence.

The pursuit of happiness is not foreign to the commandments.
There’s a certain moral and social logic to them such that
keeping the commandments will likely make for a happier life
than would not keeping them.

After all, the commandments urge us towards:
a good relationship with God; taking off at least one day a week;
the protection of human life; faithfulness between spouses;
the safeguarding of one’s property; respect for telling the truth;
and a certain contentment with what one has.

It’s easy to see how living by such norms
would easily contribute to one’s happiness.
The problem comes, however,
when fidelity to the commandments
begins to infringe on my personal happiness, as:
• when telling a lie might make me happier than telling the truth?
• when taking something that doesn’t belong to me
makes me happier than settling for what I already have?
• when the life of another makes my life, or my nation’s life,
more peaceful or more convenient?
• when forgetting my relationship with God frees me up
for happier relationships I probably shouldn’t entertain?

The problem is this:
pursuing what is good will lead me, even if by difficult roads,
to deeper peace and happiness;
but pursuing what makes me happy will often lead me,
even before I know it,
to estrangement from God, from others and even from myself.

If being happy is my desire,
disappointment and grief are what I risk.
Happiness is a moment along a continuum
of many other human emotions and experiences.

If being good is my desire
that does not rule out grief and disappointment
but it guarantees that along, and at the end of my journey
I will find more than happiness:
I will have peace, the joy that comes
from doing what I know is good, what is right,
what is just and what is true.

The difference between pursuing what is good
and pursuing what makes me happy
is often the difference between the gospel tradition
and the demands for individual rights in our own times.

In the pursuit of individual happiness,
the terms of engagement are sometimes narrow:
the individual’s rights;
laws protecting those rights;
and the desired end.

In the pursuit of what is good,
the terms are often more inclusive:
the law of God;
the individual’s free will;
the desired end and the means to it;
and most important: the other,
that is, my neighbor’s stake in my desire to be happy.

In different ways and in different degrees,
every critical issue before our nation
is subject to these distinctions.
And, in different ways and in different degrees,
every issue in my daily life and yours is likewise subject.

What happens when the child, raised to be happy,
encounters disappointment?
What is left?
But the child raised to be good knows a joy,
even in disappointment,
in being faithful to what is good.

A good question for each of us to consider this Lent
might be this:
Which do I desire the most -
to be happy… or to be good?

Jesus faced the same question
and his response burned ardently in his heart
when he gave up all claim to personal happiness and comfort
and surrendered himself to all that is Good, on the Cross.

As we are nourished by the gift of his sacrifice
may the food of his self-giving choice give us wisdom and strength
to live according to the word, the will
and the commandments of God,
that we might be good.


  1. Yes, excellent homily. That distinction between good and happy (and/or confusion about it) does define much of what's wrong in our world, I think. Two simple words which carry a great deal of meaning.

  2. very thought provoking. the subtle distinction between words can carry much meaning. i'm not totally sold on your point, or rather not yet totally understanding.
    as i struggle to parent well my two young boys, i pray often. i am confident that i'm pretty good at it, and i implore God and the saints to take care of the rest.
    anyway, i first struggled that the desire if for someone's child to be good. for some reason it is automatic to me that they are good, i mean they are God's creation. my desire for my children has been to be what God designed them to be, for i believe that is the only true happiness.
    and now we are back to my circle ... i know they are good, so what i want for them is to BE good.

  3. Wonderful homily and thank you for the Chagall.

    Perhaps my husband's and my proudest moment as parents was when at his kindergarten graduation (an event of which I do not necessarily approve) my son answered the question "What do you want to be when you grow up" with "I want to be a good and kind man." We will do my best to see that he achieves his goal.


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