Sunday, March 18, 2018

Year B Fifth Sunday of Lent

Readings: Jer. 31:31-34; Ps 51:3-4. 12-15.; Heb. 5:7-9; John 12:20-33

In our first reading today God, through the prophet Jeremiah, promised to make a new covenant with his people, Israel (Jer. 31:31b). This new covenant would not be like the old one Israel consistently ignored and violated. The new covenant would consist of God forgiving their evildoing and remembering their sins no more (Jer. 31:34c). This new covenant can be described with one word: mercy.

Mercy has no value if you don’t think you need it; this is as true of the do-gooder, who is convinced of her/his own goodness, or “good enoughness,” as it is of the hardened sinner, who makes no pretense of being good. In fact, the hardened sinner is dealing more in reality than the do-gooder, or the “good enougher,” which is why Jesus spoke of prostitutes and tax collectors being closer to God’s kingdom than those convinced of their own righteousness (Matt. 21:31).

God has only ever sought to establish one covenant with humankind, the content of which is given us completely in our reading from Jeremiah today: “I will be their God, and they shall be my people” (Jer. 31:33c). God’s new and everlasting covenant, of course, is Jesus Christ.

Our Psalm today is Psalm 51, known in the Christian West for centuries by its first word in Latin: Miserere. Miserere means to have mercy on. The Latin root of miserere is miser, meaning one who is wretched. For most of us, the iconic miser is Dickens's Ebenezer Scrooge prior to his Christmas epiphany. Using Christ as his lens, the Father looks with mercy on your wretchedness, your evildoing, and your refusal to love. For Christians, Friday has always been a day of penance. And so, each Friday Psalm 51 is the first Psalm of Morning Prayer. It begins with these words: “Have mercy on me, God, in your kindness. In your compassion blot out my offense. O wash me more and more from my guilt and cleanse me from my sin” (verses 3-4).

It is fitting that we begin each Mass with the penitential rite, during which we ritually beat our breasts as we acknowledge that we have sinned in our thoughts and in our words, in what we have done and in what we have failed to do, through our own grievous fault - mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

The author of the Letter to the Hebrews, from which our second reading is taken, tells us that Jesus “learned obedience from what he suffered” (Heb. 5:8b). Uniting your sufferings to his is how you learn obedience from what you suffer. It is by uniting your sufferings to his that your suffering becomes salvific. It is important to be clear: only Jesus obeys the Father. Jesus accomplished in his own person what Israel was unable to accomplish throughout her history: to live in complete fidelity to God’s covenant by observing the Law. The Law, of course, was not an end in itself but a means to the end of loving God with one’s whole being by loving one’s neighbor as one loves one's self.

Christ Crucified, by Giotto, 1301

Israel’s infidelity is no cause to be smug because the Church has proven just as capable of infidelity as ancient Israel. The paradox of the Church being sinful and holy at the same time led the great Church father Origen to call the Church casta meretrix - the chaste whore. If the Church is Christ’s Bride, then she is a frequently unfaithful one, but one who is not put away because of her frequent infidelities. Because of Christ’s obedience to the Father, "he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Heb. 5:9b). There is no greater deception than to believe you can save yourself by being “a good person,” or a "good enough" person. Your goodness is only relative to that of other people and so is nothing compared to the goodness of God. "No one is good." Jesus insisted, "but God alone" (Mark 10:18).

In his essay on Origen's phrase, Hans Urs Von Balthasar averred: “outside Rahab’s house, the Church, no salvation” (“Casta Meretrix” in Spouse of the Word: Explorations in Theology Vol. II, 217). Rahab, of course, was the harlot who lived in Jericho and helped the Israelites capture the city (see Joshua 2). According to St Matthew’s version of his genealogy, Rahab, along with Tamar, Ruth, and Bathsheba, is an ancestor of Jesus (Matt 1:3-6). It is worth noting that it was atypical for women to be named in ancient Jewish genealogies (Allison, “Matthew” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, 849).

Obedience to Christ is the obedience of faith, not of works. This was brought home in last week’s Gospel when Jesus told Nicodemus, “just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life” (John 3:14-15). This was made even clearer in last week’s second reading from Ephesians: “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not from you; it is the gift of God; it is not from works, so no one may boast” (Eph 2:8-9).

In today’s Gospel as the crowd is listening to Jesus a voice is heard from the heavens, some hear only thunder, others hear something they interpret as the voice of an angel speaking to Jesus. In reference to God’s holy name, the voice says, “I have glorified it and will glorify it again” (John 12:28)
Jesus tells them all, “This voice did not come for my sake but for yours. Now is the time of judgment on this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out. And when I am lifted up from the earth, I will draw everyone to myself.” He said this indicating the kind of death he would die (John 12:30-33)
The kind of death Jesus died was a terrible, bloody, sweaty, painful, agonizing death. He willingly died this death to draw you to himself, to show you that Divine Mercy sets a limit to evil and sin in the world as well as in your own heart. Far from a sign of humility, believing that your sins are greater than God’s mercy is the height of arrogance.

As we prepare to renew our baptismal covenant at the great Paschal Vigil, let us rely on nothing but the Father’s mercy given us in Christ Jesus, which mercy we experience by the power of their Holy Spirit. During this season of penance let us make use of the Sacrament of Penance, which is an extension of baptism, through which sacrament God re-affirms his covenant with us by forgiving our evildoing and remembering our sins no more. May the grace we receive through the sacrament give each of us the resolve to be ministers of reconciliation in a society so badly in need of mercy.

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