5 Sunday of Lent March 17, 2013 5:30 PM Liturgy

5th Sunday of Lent
March 17, 2013
5:30 PM Liturgy
J.A. Loftus, S.J.
Our old friend Mark Twain can always be counted on to provide a
pithy comment or two about religion. One of my favorites is this: “It ain’t
the parts of the bible that I can’t understand that bothers me, it’s the parts
that I do understand.”
Twain grasps here that it’s not so much new insights or new teachings
that I learn that causes the problem understanding things in the bible. It’s
just much more difficult to unlearn than to learn. Think about it. In
whatever field of exploration you can think of (industry, physics, biology,
economics, philosophy, and even theology), it’s the unlearning of past
treasured notions that upsets the apple-cart. Whenever something new
surprises us, we first have to figure out what to do with the “old.”
This holds true in religion and theology too. And so how seriously can
we take Isaiah’s prophesy today? Can we really hear him? “Remember not
the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see I am doing
something new.” And Isaiah is referring not to any old “something new.”
It is something so radially different, so completely unexpected, so
mind-bending, that everything we thought we knew is turned completely
up-side-down. Everything: our sense of God, of sin, of love, and of life itself.
It all becomes “inverted.”
Sounds like lots of “unlearning” to do, friends. But Jesus’ own life
demands much the same response. Jesus was at such pains to show his
contemporaries that their notions of who God was, of how God judges people,
of what life here is really about, were misguided. Jesus’ life and teaching
offered nothing really radically new in terms of doctrine, or a comprehensive
ethic. He built no new church, created no new religion. He just begged
people to unlearn what they had been taught about God and God’s ways.
Last week most liturgies heard the well-known gospel that we call the
parable of the “Prodigal Son.” (I realize that if you were at this liturgy last
week you heard a different gospel about the man born blind from John’s
gospel. No matter: you all know the Prodigal Son parable by heart!) It’s
really the story of two lost sons. An elder son who has kept every law in the
book for his entire lifetime, a son who built his relationship with his father
and with God so carefully, that he cannot and will not accept a graciousness
and love beyond reason. He leaves himself permanently alienated by all he
has known and treasured. He cannot unlearn his god.
And then there is a second son, the one who chooses the path of
self-discovery and self-exploration. And he too is lost. And then there is a
father who is unreasonably loving to both sons. He appeals again and again:
let’s just enjoy the banquet. No groveling needed, no prior repentance
required, no sack cloth and ashes for him. The father is the one who is being
unreasonable and profligate here.
Jesus aims this parable directly at the religious authorities peeking in
from outside the dinner party. And they must now be furious. They could
certainly see themselves in the elder son. And this Jesus must go! He is
turning everything up-side-down.
And now to today’s story. The religious authorities are back, of
course. They really seem to delight in freezing people with their stares.
And now they’ve caught a young woman in the very act of adultery. (I’ve
always wondered how they did that without peering into people’s bedrooms.
But that’s another story.) They plan on getting two birds with one stone
today: the woman and this “goody-two-shoes” who keeps telling people God
actually forgives them. And they set their trap for Jesus.
But Jesus will not be trapped. But watch, here comes another
up-side-down cake, a complete inversion of the Law. Jesus reaches down
with his finger and taps or writes in the sand. Remember this is John’s
gospel. John is a very careful and crafty author. Nothing is ever simply
accidental with John.
Jesus is bending over from the seat of Moses to write. Remember it is
the finger of God that writes the tablets of the commandments for Moses.
And God has to write for Moses twice just as Jesus does in this scene. Think
of the finger of God that writes on the wall in the book of Daniel. Remember
the finger of God at creation. Look at the magnificent ceiling of the Sistine
chapel in the Vatican and see the finger of God stretch out to Adam. The
finger of God writes all human history.
And the finger of God doodles before the self-righteous of this
world–whether they be in the temples and synagogues of first century
Palestine or scattered throughout the pews of churches in our own 21st
century. God, Jesus says, is not what we make God out to be! There is no
need to buy righteousness. There is no need to repent first. God forgives.
Period! This too is an up-side-down God Jesus preaches.
There is a beautiful Rembrandt painting of this scene. Jesus is turning
toward the elders pointing a finger at them (the same finger of God by the
way). But at the bottom of the frame, barely noticeable, the young woman
has quietly entwined her fingers around Jesus’ other hand. And he holds her
hand tenderly as he asks: “Has no one condemned you?” “The neither do I.”
This is who God is! There is no stare, no penalty, no restitution. Just:
“go now and don’t do it again.”
“It ain’t the parts of the bible I can’t understand that bothers me, it’s
the parts I do.”
Lent is a time of unlearning as much as anything. God will
never be as predictable as we expect. Peace!