In the movie “Back to the Future,” an enterprising young Michael J. Fox conspires with a brilliant eccentric, Christopher Lloyd, to drive a transformed Delorean into the past in order to do something that will change the present. It is a delightful farce, with both humor and suspense. In the end, the hero is left with an appreciation of his present life.
The readings for this Sunday invite us to move through time, but in the opposite direction. They have a clear eschatological focus. They give us glimpses into future fulfillment. In other words, rather than look to the past for the sake of the present, they have us look to the future—but still for the sake of the present.
In the oracle of salvation taken from the Book of Isaiah, God promises to come with healing and blessings. Those who are in any way prevented from living life to the fullest will be freed from impediments and will sing and dance with joy. The lifegiving water that is promised symbolizes whatever is needed to achieve this peace and fulness of life. This is the future for which we all yearn. Though the standards by which we live may differ one from another, we all want a future of peace and the fulness of life.
In the Gospel account, we see Jesus fulfilling the promise that God made. His ministry establishes the reign of God, in which healing and the blessings of life are no longer mere expectations of the future. Through the power of Jesus, they unfold before our very eyes, or at least before the eyes of those who witnessed Jesus’ wondrous deeds. The future is now in the present. And it did not arrive in the wake of some delightful science fiction farce. This future is real, even though one needs eyes of faith to recognize it.
Although the psalm is normally related most closely to the first reading, this psalm really picks up the theme found in both the first and third readings. As we pray it, we rejoice that God’s promise for peace and fulness of life has been kept. God has indeed removed the obstacles that diminish life. We rejoice because “The God of Jacob keeps faith forever.”
No one would dare suggest that these two readings, along with the psalm response, picture situations as fanciful as those produced by Hollywood. However, unless we too can step into the mysterious future that they envision, they will remain simply religious stories, and we will sit in the audience watching someone else’s drama unfold. But how do we take that step into the future?
The author of the Letter of James offers us an example of how this can be done. He describes a situation with which we are all only too familiar. Who of us has not been impressed when a fashionably dressed woman or man joins our gathering? If this is a person of renown, we might almost fall over ourselves showing deference. “Sit here, you can see better. Can I get you something to drink?” Do we show that same kind of courtesy to those among us who are less fortunate or well known? Is the one who answers the phone less significant than the one who pays the salary?
James insists: “Show no partiality.” In a society like ours, where we dote on people who have money or power or celebrity, this mandate is countercultural. We cannot deny that there are differences in social status. But if despite these differences, we show respect to all people, treating them as children of God, we would be taking a step into that future of peace and blessing. In a very real sense, that future would be made present.
As stated above, we look to the future for the sake of the present. This is not the same as living in the future because the present is too painful or just plain boring. Nor is it the same as planning the future, which seems to be a favorite pastime of many people. The future referred to in these readings is not simply the one we want for ourselves. It is God’s future, the one that God wants for us. This is the future depicted in God’s promises, the future in which we will be freed from whatever prevents us from living life to the fullest.
Though it is God’s future, it does not simply dawn upon us one day. In a very real sense, this future, which is really the reign of God, takes shape when we make a decision to live God’s promises in the present. God holds out the possibility of this future, but we must decide to step into it.
The psalm offers other examples of how we might step into that future. It will dawn upon us when we work to ensure that the oppressed receive justice, that the hungry are fed, that those unjustly captured are freed, that those who cannot see are given some kind of sight, that those who have been crushed by life are raised up, that the orphans and widowed are protected and that strangers are respected. This is the future promised by God, and each time we accomplish such feats we bring God’s future “back to the present.”