Lent began with Jesus in the desert, solitary and without food. When the tempter tried to persuade him to turn stones into loaves, he replied, "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God" (Matthew iv,4). Material things, he suggested, can indeed be good, but there are other goods that surpass them by far.
By now we are a third of the way through Lent, and at first sight tomorrow's Gospel provides a striking contrast. It tells the story of the Samaritan woman whom Jesus encounters at a well and asks for a drink. Solitude is replaced by conversation, temptation by a friendly offer of help, the parched sands by a bubbling spring. Yet the message remains the same. Jesus tells the woman, "Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst, but whoever drinks of the water that I shall give him will never thirst; the water that I shall give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life" (John iv,13-14). The water from the well is good, but only the living water can fully quench our thirst.
It was not only Jews and Christians who contrasted material and spiritual goods. All the schools of Greek philosophy did the same, in different ways. Plato emphasised the limited nature of material things, their flaws and imperfections, how they shift and wear out. The Epicureans acquired a bad reputation for believing that the goal of life was pleasure, but even they, it turned out, thought that the most important pleasure was tranquillity of mind, and that we best achieved that by limiting our bodily desires. Their opponents the Stoics held that the only thing truly worth having was virtue. Aristotle, balanced as ever, argued that to be fully happy we needed the goods of both body and soul; the goods of the soul, though, were much more important.
Most of the time nowadays we pretend that we no longer agree. Happiness, we tell ourselves, comes not from being more, but from having more. Fame and fortune, fitness and fashion - these are what life is about. The politicians reinforce the message: success is measured by GDP, and education is "for the economy". Maybe the philosophers were just wrong. But, before we dismiss them too quickly, we ought to try to understand their point of view.
"Everyone who drinks of this water will thirst." The first problem with material satisfaction is that it does not last. We are soon thirsty again: the excitement of the new toy wears off; the computer needs upgrading; the wine is used up; the car begins to rust. The second problem is that material goods are limited: if you drink all the water in the bucket, there will be none left for me. We fight over resources when they are scarce; then, when we have more than we need, we invent competitions so that the fights will go on. If my phone is flashier than yours, then you are the loser; if you are sporting the latest designer jeans, so much the worse for me.
The odd thing is that many of our most basic material goods are ones that we cannot but share. If someone poisons the well, then no one can drink. This has become clearer than ever as we have come to understand the interconnected nature of our fragile environment. Scientists have detected industrial chemicals in the fat of polar bears, chemicals that have been washed up to the Arctic by the flow of the oceans across the globe. No one in the world, it seems, can swim in a clean sea, unless the sea is clean for every single one of us. In order to protect the goods of the environment, we must learn to think of ourselves as collaborators rather than rivals. If we are driven by ambition for material goods, which we lose if we share them, then that will be hard to do.
The goods of the soul can be shared without loss; indeed, they are often multiplied when they are shared. The following notice, spotted in a country pub, makes the point perfectly: "If you see someone without a smile, give them one of your own." Smiles, like the kindness and cheerfulness that inspire them, are infectious. The same is true of the other virtues. Those who practise courage and fairness and honesty inspire them in others. Knowledge and understanding reproduce themselves, as every teacher knows. Children learn to love through being loved. Those who are at peace within themselves bring peace to others; and peace is something that is necessarily shared.
The Lenten practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are a way of transforming material goods, for which we compete, into spiritual goods, which we can share. The less we take of the former, the more will be left for others. The more we acquire of the latter, the more will be there for others. In this way, we can ease the pressure of the competitive economy, and begin to foster an economy of grace. The parched sands of the desert will start to turn green, fed by the waters of a living spring.Reuse content