What is the point of the covenant God makes with man? Is it God’s goal to arraign us for our sins, to play gotcha? (This theology of a scorekeeper, merciless god often provokes self-justification as a defense mechanism.) Or is God’s goal precisely to justify our existence despite our failures, to envelop us in His prevenient love and so open up a way for us out of our sins?
No person can be harangued out of sin. You can only love someone out of sin. That is the Father’s goal in His plan of loving goodness. That merciful strategy is the focus of the lectionary readings for the fifth Sunday of Lent.
The first reading from Isaiah 43:16-21 conflates the exodus from Egypt with a prophesied return from Babylonian exile. The LORD Who “opens a way in the sea” shows that in doing new things in history He simply will be doing what He always has done, for His faithful love IS WHO HE IS: “See, I am doing something new! ...In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers.”
The Gospel presents the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). Churchy religious hypocrites treat the sins of others as a gladiatorial spectacle by which they justify their existence (the scapegoat mechanism). Because their mercilessness blinds them to the truth of divine mercy, pharisees then and now, in their desperation to stand before God in their pride, entertain a bloodlust that ranges them, bitter irony, on the side of God’s enemy, serving the Adversary who brings charges against us all. Jesus simply cuts through the obvious self-contradiction: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” We all depend on mercy.
Let’s be clear: the pharisee is an idolater. He serves the demonic power of the Adversary. That is the simple truth. In his “religious” self-justification, he commits sacrilege by making it seem to the world that God seeks to condemn other people (it’s always other people), when it is exactly the opposite: God wants to justify all of us. There is no more total betrayal of the covenant than mercilessness.
The second reading is from Saint Paul (Philippians 3:8-14), who of course explicitly makes war on pharisaical self-justification. In this passage, he takes a positive approach, attesting that a life lived without shoring up one’s own position is the way to hope.
All his religious zeal, his exemplary past as a Pharisee: all that he worked, he lets go. He won’t stand before God and plead his worthiness for salvation by pointing to his works. He stands only because he can point to Christ. And why does that matter? Because he BELIEVES that in the sacrifice of Jesus, the Father has justified each of us. It’s as simple, and as hard, as that—to forswear all props in life, so as to find the goodness of the Father in Jesus:
“Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For His sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in Him, not having a justification of my own, based on law, but that which is through faith in Christ, the justification from God [the Father] that depends on faith.”
Saint Paul isn’t simply refusing religious pharisaism here. Whenever we try to stand up in this world by gathering enough money, or enough stuff, or enough status, or enough whatever, so that we do not feel too exposed, too unaccommodated to the rough weather of this world, we show that we lack faith. Yes, the world is full of the goodness of God: but until we find ALL the goodness of the Father concentrated in Jesus, we will make an idol of all the good things. If those goods do not speak Christ to us, the Word in them has been silenced. How do we know if they speak Christ to us? Only if we can give them up, and know, in the bone, that Jesus is the great prize of the world. That’s the point of asceticism: to find all the goodness of the Father in the Son He has given to us. When that has happened, and we again open our eyes upon the world, it will shine as it has never shone before.
Without suffering the loss of everything, we cannot escape the death that has pervaded us from the beginning of our existence, which blinds us to the iconicity of the world, the glory of the Lord shining everywhere. Love’s vision cannot be restored without sharing in that love-death of Jesus that kills the death of our alienation from the world of invisible love. I must lose all things “that I may know [Jesus] and the power of His resurrection, and may share His sufferings, becoming like Him in His death, that if possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.”
Saint Paul emphasizes the reversal of intentionality that characterizes true religion: it is not that I must work my justification, but God justifies us. It is not that I have appropriated new life in Christ, but that Christ has appropriated me, so that I may start to cooperate with the unfolding of that life in me: “Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me His own.”
Once we have been undone, once we have found we can do nothing to save ourselves, once we recognize that our merciless judgmentalism (towards others or even towards ourselves) has no savor of truth or of love to it, then we may begin. We may begin because we find ourselves always already surrounded by a love that, before the foundation of the world, was determined to initiate our initiative, which will have no upper limit, for the vasty spaces in which we roam in Christ are the infinitely workable fields of eternity, electric with ever-greater Trinitarian life, from which spring the fruits of love. The Father bids us rise forever: “Brethren, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but one thing I do, forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on towards the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.”
The exodus is the end of exile from the country of love. To come out of Egypt is to come out of Babylon, and there is only one destination: twelve gates to the New Jerusalem, the city of limitless love. Time to go home.