One of the defining moments of Jesus’ public ministry takes place before his work even begins. In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, God’s Spirit leads Jesus into the desert for fasting and prayer. While there, Satan attacks him with temptations to vanity, worldly power and glory.
In effect, Christ’s knowledge of who he really is and the nature of his messiahship are put to the test. Pressed by the devil to turn stones into bread, a hungry and weakened Jesus nonetheless answers: “It is written, ‘Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God’” (Mt 4:4).
Reading the New Testament reminds us again and again that Christian discipleship has social implications. We have obligations of charity, mercy and justice to each other that bind us together as one human family. We cannot be saved alone. We prove our faith and we make our way to God through service to other people, especially the poor and the weak.
The Epistle of James especially warns us that pious words alone do not make a Christian. James urges us to “be doers of the word and not hearers only” (Jas 1:22). And he stresses that “religion that is pure and undefiled before God and the Father is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world” (Jas 1:27).
We are in the world, and we have duties to help ease its needs. We’re called to make it a more virtuous and humane place. But — and this is vital — we are not of the world. The material dimension of Gospel justice flows from a deeper and more important spiritual truth: We were created by God. We cannot be happy or whole without him.
Human beings are much more than mere animals or interesting biochemical systems. We have souls. Through Jesus Christ, we will live forever. Thus we have needs and longings that can never be satisfied by merely material things.
There can be no real “justice” divorced from questions about man’s final purpose and humanity’s deeper spiritual hungers. Any social order that denies God or refuses to allow him space in the public life of its people fundamentally attacks its own legitimacy because it denies reality and trivializes the scope of the human person.
This week, on Ash Wednesday, Catholics around the world begin the holy season of Lent, one of the most sacred periods in the Christian year. Lent is a time for self-denial and prayer; a time to reconnect with Scripture; a time to purify ourselves and reconcile with God through the sacrament of penance. It’s an invitation to humility, forgiveness of others, honest self-examination and repentance — but also to growing joy, because with Easter, our redemption will be at hand.
Lent is a precious time and gift; a unique chance to reorient our lives toward those unseen but enduring things that really matter. This year, may God grant us the wisdom to use these weeks of Lent well. May we remember that we serve justice best by first giving ourselves to God; and then bringing the light of Jesus Christ to others through the witness of our lives, our words and our actions. There is no justice without truth; and only Jesus Christ is the way, the truth and the life.