Three Great Lenten Themes

Three great themes run through the Sunday readings for Lent this year: the exodus, the justice and mercy of God, and the paschal mystery (the saving significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection). This Sunday’s readings develop and deepen those themes.



Today’s Old Testament passage comes from the part of the Book of Isaiah that celebrates the permission from Cyrus the Great for Israel to return from exile in Babylon in the sixth century B.C. In his effort to increase enthusiasm for the difficult journey ahead, the prophet appeals to the exodus from Egypt under Moses many centuries before. Isaiah describes God as the one who opens a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters. He portrays God as a mighty warrior triumphing over the enemies of his people. He presents God as guiding his people through the wilderness and caring for them along the way. All this echoes what God did in the first exodus.

The “new” thing that God was doing in the 6th century B.C. was not entirely new. Isaiah 43 reminds us that the God of the Bible acts according to an old pattern when liberating his people. The paradigm set in the first exodus shaped Israel’s return from exile as well as the paschal mystery some 2,000 years ago.

The Sunday Gospel readings for this Lent have given particular attention to Jesus’ efforts to balance the justice and the mercy of God, the two great divine attributes in the biblical tradition. The narrative preserved in most manuscripts in John 8 (though it sounds like Luke) is set in the area of the Jerusalem temple where Jesus had been teaching. His opponents bring forward a woman caught in adultery. The penalty for such an offense was death by stoning. The opponents want to use the occasion to embarrass Jesus, since he had the reputation of proclaiming God’s mercy toward sinners. If he takes the side of the adulterous woman, he is open to the charge of ignoring God’s law and God’s justice. If he insists on following the Law exactly, his reputation as a prophet of God’s mercy will be open to question. This is the dilemma that the opponents construct for Jesus.

In John 8, Jesus most obviously manifests the mercy of God. Here is a lone woman caught in a serious sin punishable by death. Against her are male accusers with reputations for great learning and piety. And yet Jesus, the wise and merciful teacher, devises a way to get her out of the situation, to save her life and to let her begin over again. Thus he champions the mercy of God.

In manifesting the mercy of God, Jesus also upholds the justice of God. He does not reject the biblical commandment against adultery. Instead he stalls for time by doodling on the ground. Then he delivers a penetrating challenge, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” His challenge has the effect of turning the accusers’ attention back on themselves and making them realize that they too are sinners. It reduces them to silence and causes them to slink away in shame. By appealing to the justice of God and the injustice of humans, Jesus upholds God’s mercy.

In his parting words to the woman Jesus again manifests both mercy and justice. He first says to her, “Neither do I condemn you,” upholding the mercy of God. Then he adds, “From now on do not sin any more.” Jesus knows what sin is. He does not shrink from calling certain actions “sins.” He recognizes that some actions are inappropriate and offensive to the justice of God. He forgives the sinner but does not excuse or explain away the sin. Thus Jesus upholds the justice of God.

At this point in the Lenten season we may need to recognize and experience both God’s justice and God’s mercy. By confessing our sinfulness and determining to avoid sin, we bear witness to the justice of God. By accepting the forgiveness of our sins and by determining to forgive those who have offended us, we bear witness to God’s mercy.

The readings from Paul’s letters for the Sundays during Lent have repeatedly reminded us of the pivotal significance of Jesus’ death and resurrection (the paschal mystery) in the history of our salvation. Today’s selection from Paul’s letter to the Philippians is a good example of what has been called Paul’s Christ-mysticism. Paul regards himself as having “been taken possession of by Christ Jesus,” as constantly striving to be ever more conformed to the pattern set by Christ in the paschal mystery and as hoping to enjoy fullness of eternal life with Christ. May Paul’s thoughts be ours as we observe the final weeks of Lent.

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