One of the virtues that is the most challenging to cultivate and sustain is personal integrity. It’s that quality in us that knows what is “right” and will not let us compromise our beliefs by doing anything else.
I recently read an article about a high school science teacher in a small Midwest town who assigned her students a project. It was relatively straight-forward: collect a sample of 20 leaves from area trees and write a report on what can be known by observing the leaves. The teacher gave her students only one instruction: All of their work had to be original and not lifted from published sources.
When the projects were turned in the teacher discovered that 28 of her 116 students “cut and pasted” into their reports material obtained from Wikipedia. She gave each of those students an “F” which meant some of them would fail the course.
Well, this riled the parents of the offending students. A group of parents complained to the school board and threatened a lawsuit. Bowing to their pressure, the school board ordered the teacher to ignore the use of outside sources, re-grade the projects and change the grades given to those students. To her credit, the teacher refused to do so and resigned.
Appearing before the school board at its next public meeting the teacher said: “This is not just about a science project. We’re teaching more than that. We’re teaching these students to be honest people, to have integrity, and to be good citizens. We should not expect or accept anything less.” Sadly, her plea fell on deaf ears. After the meeting the teacher was stopped by one of the students who cheated on the project. That student just sneered at the teacher and said…“we won!”
Like it or not, we live in a society that places personal advancement and material gain ahead of being true to our beliefs and values. It’s all too easy to rationalize moral wrongs (like cheating) by believing “everybody does it” so it must be alright to do. How often does society praise the person who passionately tries to win at any cost, while ridiculing the one who lives with integrity by professing his beliefs in what he says and what he does? Both of those people have the same level of passion for what they do, but only one mirrors the integrity we try to teach our children.
Accepting attitudes and actions that we know are wrong gradually destroys personal, social and political integrity. By silently condoning actions that lack the conviction of our beliefs we are slowly led to the edge of a moral abyss. That’s just what Jesus is reacting to in today’s Gospel.
Merchants who pursue self-interests and profits have turned his Father’s temple into nothing more than ‘common space’ that disregarded its sacredness. That gets our Lord really passionate. He is outraged by the desecration of the temple and by merchants who cheat the poor. He acts passionately and deliberately to restore the integrity of the Temple and return it to its true purpose.
Living a Christian life means it’s not enough for us to just “go through the motions.” Getting ashes on our foreheads on Ash Wednesday lacks integrity if we aren’t prepared to follow-through by living the words God speaks to us: “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Real integrity demands that we become passionate, just like Jesus was passionate, in putting our beliefs into practice; by doing and supporting what we know to be right.
What Jesus did in the temple we should do in our lives: Drive away the merchants who try to sell us on beliefs and values that are contrary to what we know is ‘right’. Get rid of the modern day money-changers who never miss a chance to short-change us by suggesting it’s ok to make our lives less than what God created them to be.
Like the high school science teacher, we need to withstand the challenges of those who demand that we accept behavior and actions that we know are wrong. If we truly believe in respecting the dignity of each person — do we show it in how we interact with our coworkers; in how we honor our marriage vows; or by how we select our leaders? Our actions need to profess what we believe.
Lent is a time of personal scrutiny; a time to take a deeper look at how we live our life and to address the things we may have done that compromised our integrity. It’s a time to consider how we can put into practice, here and now, the values demonstrated by Jesus in the Temple. It’s a time to repent and cleanse our personal temples.
As we near the half-way point of this holy season of Lent, spend a few minutes with your family talking about this Sunday’s scripture readings. Reflect on:
– The Ten Commandments God gave Moses for the salvation of his people;
– The psalm that directs us to where we will find the words of everlasting life and;
– The Gospel zeal for living in a way that is faithful to our beliefs.
Then we may more clearly see and understand how Jesus calls each one of us to live with personal integrity by practicing what we believe.