March 13 2016 (C) Fifth Sunday of Lent
A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
B. Reflection & Dialogue with Questions of the Day. Beginning of a new Age with God’s mercy.
A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings)
First Reading (Isaiah 43:16-21). See, I am doing a new deed, and I will give my chosen people drink. This reading forms part of God’s discourse to his people Israel during their exile in Babylon through the prophet known as Second Isaiah. The same prophet spoke to them many times on the same subject: the Lord their God was about the save them and to lead them back through the desert to their native land. The lengthy discourse from which this passage is taken begins with these words from God: “But now thus says the Lord, he who created you O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by my name, you are mine. When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall be burned, and the flame shall not consume you. For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Saviour”.
In one sense this redemption is a new departure, a new exodus, similar to that from Egypt, but these texts stress that the journey from Egypt cannot be compared to this new journey westwards from Babylon. In this present reading God speaks in a general way of the journey from Egypt, which he presents as have directed himself – through the sea, a path through the great waters, putting chariots and horses in the field to have them snuffed out like a wick. But that was only the beginning of Israel as a people, and she had now no need to recall these past events, in view of the new deed God was going to perform for them, a new deed that was beginning to emerge for them, with a new journey from Babylon to their homeland through the desert and the marvels that would accompany it. God was about to form a new people for himself, a people that would sing his praises.
Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 125). What marvels the Lord worked for us! Indeed we were glad.
Second Reading (Philippians 3:8-14). Reproducing the pattern of his death, I have accepted the loss of everything for Christ. The apostle Paul was a prisoner, probably in Ephesus, when he wrote this letter to the Philippians. In the letter itself, immediately before today’s reading, Paul warns members of the Church at Philippi to be on their guard with regard to certain persons, especially Jews or Jewish Christians who were, apparently, attempting to introduce Jewish customs, maintaining that they themselves were the true people of God and priding themselves in bodily matters, in the flesh, and in circumcision. Paul in reply to their claims makes clear that he himself has more reason that they to be confident in the flesh, and he lists his genuine Jewish credentials – a Pharisee, with regard to righteousness under the law blameless. But Christians are the true circumcision, who worship in the spirit of God and boast in Christ and have no confidence (basis for boasting) in the flesh, on bodily or material grounds. He continues by saying that whatever gains he had from his Jewish origins and practices he had come to regard as loss because of Christ.
This change came about at his encounter with Christ on the Damascus road. In today’s reading he calls this change in his life as the supreme advantage of coming to know Christ Jesus as his Lord, not just a detached knowledge but a personal acquaintance. This encounter with Christ was not a once-off experience. It was continuous and when writing this letter he says that all he wanted was to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and to share his sufferings by reproducing the pattern of his death. That encounter with Christ and with God’s grace was a major event for Paul, when Christ took hold of, “captured”, him. But that divine call, and its call for perfection, did not take away Paul’s free will. He had to cooperate with the grace of God in his journey towards perfection. He continues, he says, to try capture the prize for which Jesus captured him. Reflecting on his life, on the course he had run, Paul says that he had not as yet attained perfection. The goal he had before him was the glory of heaven and life with Christ in the next life. Reflecting on the end of the missionary journey of his hero and icon, the author of ther Second Letter to Timothy puts these words on Paul’s lips: “As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearance”. In this letter to the Philippians the hour of Paul’s departure had not yet come, but still he had intended to forget the road he had travelled, a long missionary road, and to advance on the road that lay ahead before him and journey along it until he reach the appointed goal, and race for the finish, to the prize that God calls him and all believers in Christ to. But in all this his righteousness will not be that of his former self, that of the Jewish Law, but the righteousness that comes with belief in Christ, that comes from God and is founded on faith.
Gospel (John 8:1-11). If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her. This text is part of the biblical canon, as other parts of the Bible, but does not appear to have formed part of the original Gospel of John. It is not found in the oldest texts of John’s Gospel, or in many ancient translations of John. Stylistically it is closer to the Gospel of Luke than of John, and in some texts is found in Luke’s Gospel rather than that of John. Quite possibly it originated as an independent piece, which was later inserted into different Gospels. Regardless of this, it forms part of inspired Scripture, with a permanent message from Jesus.
With regard to its text and the reference to what Moses ordered in the Law concerning adultery, the Pentateuch (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22-24) has the following: in the case of adultery between a married man and a married woman both are to be put to death; in the case of intercourse in a town between a man and a young woman, a virgin, engaged to be married, both are to be stoned to death. But it is likely that there was further legislation on these matters in later centuries. Jesus gives no reply to the question put to him on the matter by the scribes and Pharisees. What significance to be given to Jesus writing on the ground (mentioned twice, before and after Jesus’ words) is not clear. There may be a reference to Jeremiah 17:13: “Those who forsake you shall be recorded in the earth”. Jesus’ words “The one of you who has not sinned” may be an invitation to them to reflect on their own personal lives, in keeping with what Jesus said on another occasion on passing judgment (Matthew 7:1-12), ending as: “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you: for this is the law and the law and the prophets”. Jesus told the woman that he was not going to condemn her, but tells her not to sin any more. It can be gathered from this that she has repented, or possibly even that Jesus had forgiven her.
B. Reflection & Dialogue with Questions of the Day: Beginning of a new Age with God’s mercy.
In current discussion of political and Church matters mention is often made of the advent, or expectation, of a new era and today’s liturgical readings give us ample material for reflection on these issues.
The vision of a new age, a new era, is good and welcome, and the Bible presents ample information of God’s own desire for such a vision. God himself had put such a vision before his chosen people on many occasions. But it is also good to remember that such visions of a new and better age have not always, indeed only rarely, been fulfilled, because such fulfilment of a divine plan depends also on historical circumstances and human cooperation. This was true in a special way with regard to the prophecies made to Israel, and for this reason have remained as an incentive for believers and others down through history.
One great message from today’s Gospel reading is that of divine mercy, with the beautiful example of this in Jesus’ stance with regard to the woman committing adultery and Jesus’ words on the matter. The Church herself currently lays special emphasis on divine mercy and on how necessary this message is for our own day for both Church and state.
Both the Old and New Testaments are full of references to God’s mercy, and to evaluate this evidence it is not amiss to situate the teaching in its fuller biblical and theological context. God is God, the God of mercy and the Holy One, and very often the references to God’s mercy are connected with God’s patience, and the call to repentance from sin in contexts where God is addressing his people Israel, or individual members of it.
In other texts God speaks, or is spoken of, as the Father in heaven who loves all and cares for everyone. As Jesus himself say with regard to the love of one’s enemies (Matthew 5:43-48): “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy’. But I Say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect”. The heavenly Father loves the entire human race, in the whole world, today, whether they believe in him, or are indifferent about his very existence, or who deny his existence or detest the very mention of his name. It is important that the entire human race show mercy to one another, to immigrants, migrants, the marginalized, the handicapped. It is good that this belief is held by the great majority of the organized world, while it is sadly lacking among others, as is evident in the terrible wars and in other ways.
The voice of God and of Jesus is constantly urging all, individuals and nations, to create and maintain the vision of a better world, where mercy is central, with patience if fulfilment of the vision is delayed.
The following readings from Year A may also be used as alternative readings.
The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings).
First Reading (Ezekiel 37:12-14). I shall put my spirit in you, and you will live. In this reading we have part of the vision which the prophet Ezekiel had during the Jewish exile in Babylon in the sixth century B.C. The exiles were saying: “Our bones are dried up, our hope is lost; we cut off completely”. The Temple had been burnt to the ground, the Holy City of Jerusalem destroyed and Judah devastated. Metaphorically speaking the people were, so to speak, as good as dead, buried, in the grave. In this present reading God says to them that such is not the case. He is going to open their graves, to raise their corpses from the graves, put a new living spirit within them, thus giving a new life to this despondent people, with the promise to return them to their native soil of Judah. The text speaks of the resurrection of the people of Judah in exile, from the death of despair to new life. Bodily resurrection of the individual is not envisaged. This belief will become clear in Israel only about the year 200 B.C.
Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 129). With the Lord there is mercy and fullness of redemption.
Second Reading (Romans 8:8-11). The Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead is living in you. The opening verses of this reading are rendered more literally in The New Revised Standard Version, in conformity with the Greek original, as follows: “Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. But you are not in the flesh but in the Spirit (or: spirit, with a small s), since the Spirit of God dwells in you”. Paul makes a contrast between the “flesh” and the “Spirit” (or “spirit”, with small “s” if the Holy Spirit is not intended). By “flesh” he means the body, weak human nature, and the mind or mindset that is contrary to God and the divine, and is inclined towards sin. The sense comes across in the different wording of an earlier (1967) edition the Jerusalem Bible: “People who are interested only in unspiritual things can never be pleasing to God. Your interests, however, are not in the unspiritual, but the spiritual, since the Spirit of God has made his home in you”, a rendering somewhat modified in the later (1985) edition of that same rendering, as: “Those who live by their natural inclinations can never be pleasing to God”. Those who live by the “flesh”, in Paul’s sense of the word, those interested only in unspiritual things, those who live by their natural inclinations, cannot please God. It is different with believers who have the Spirit of God dwelling in them, the Spirit that gives new life. As Paul will say a few verses after this present reading (8:14): “All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God”. Paul envisages the body dead because of sin, dead because it is destined for physical death, and is an instrument for sin. But within that same body there is another force, a power towards life, which power is the Holy Spirit given to those who have been justified through faith in Jesus Christ. God the Father, by his almighty power, raised Jesus from the dead, and the Spirit of that same Father dwells in believers, a pledge that God, through that same Spirit, will give life to the moral bodies of believers, spiritual life here on earth and the fullness of life in the hereafter.
The Gospel (John 11:1-45). I am the resurrection and the life. This lengthy Gospel reading is in line with what we have read in the Lectionary texts over the past two Sundays, readings all from the Gospel of John, texts in which Jesus avails of a human occurrence to explain aspects of the mystery that is his own person and mission. Thus we have the episode of the Samaritan woman and the well of Jacob, symbolising the water that he was to give (the Holy Spirit); the curing of the man born blind, and Jesus as the light of the world, and today the raising of Lazars and Jesus as the resurrection and the life. Jesus was friendly with the family of Bethany (Mary, Martha and Lazarus), Bethany a village about three kilometres from Jerusalem. On hearing of Lazarus’s illness Jesus said that this sickness would not end in death but in God’s glory, and that through it the Son of God (that is, Jesus himself) would be glorified. He does not go to Lazarus immediately, but allows him to die. Lazarus had been dead already four days when Jesus reaches his tomb. Jesus told Martha that her brother Lazarus would rise again, at which words Martha makes a profession of faith in the resurrection, but at the last day. This leads to Jesus’ reply, which is the high point of the narrative: “I am the resurrection and the life. If anyone believes in me, even though he dies he will live, and whoever lives and believes in me will never die”. This leads to a profession of faith by Martha in Jesus as the Christ (the Messiah) and the Son of God. There are also a number of other points made in the lengthy reading which we need not enter into here.
B. Reflection & Dialogue: The power of the Holy Spirit and of grace within us is stronger that our human weakness.
Sometimes Jesus is accused of having ha d little understanding of the weakness of human nature, as for instance in his total ban on divorce. In one sense the mission he gave to his followers to be the light of the world and the salt of the earth was also a difficult one. The early Church understood this mission exactly as Jesus had intended it. The Church, the Christian community, in its teaching and in its following of the Gospel, was to be a new light for the surrounding pagan world. Writing to the Corinthians Paul well describes this noble mission, as well as the human weakness of those who bear witness to it (2 Corinthians 4:6-7): “For its is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us”. Similarly, when writing to the Philippians (2:12-13), he reminds them how Christ humbled himself, taking on the form of a slave, going on to exhort them to work out their salvation in fear and trembling, because the work of salvation is a cooperation between the believer and God, and it is God who is at work in believers enabling them both to will and to work for his good pleasure. Salvation is not just through human endeavour. In the letter to the Romans, as is clear from today’s second reading, Paul lays stress on the weakness of human nature and its inclination to sin, but only to highlight Christ’s victory over sin and its deadly power, a victory of the Holy Spirit over human weakness. Where sin increased there grace abounded all the more.
Turning from Paul to our own day, the Church is often criticised for its numerous rules, as if rules were everything. Such a criticism if often justified, but sometimes the censures are directed not against specifically Church rules as such but directives which are part of the teaching of Christ and of the Gospel. In this case, when it is a matter of the message of the Gospel being proclaimed by the Church, what is involved is not the rules as such but these as part of the Christian way of life, a life to be lived under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and with the grace of God. The life of the Church, even given its human limitations, cannot be understood without the dimension of the Church as part of the mystery of salvation being taken into account.
Among a number of Catholics today there probably is an element of Pelagianism, which really never left the Church. What is meant here by Pelagianism is the reliance on the power of human nature alone, unaided by grace, to live the moral Christian life. Christian living requires recognition of human weakness, of the inclination to sin, and of the need of God’s grace. It calls for humility and for prayer to recognise what God’s will is in given circumstances and for the strength to act accordingly. Paul stresses this point again and again, and we would do well today to listen to his voice.
With regard to dialogue with the world of our own day, with its occasional calls for reform in the Church and such like: the reforms in question at times are in matters relating to Catholic teaching which is considered out of date, not in conformity with perceived values of our day, or with human freedom as perceived in a secular society. In the discussion of such questions, points made above could usefully be borne in mind, centring around the light of the Gospel, the power of the Holy Spirit and of grace.