March 19, 2017
THE THIRD SUNDAY OF LENT (Year A)
The Pace of Conversion
Do I ever get discouraged about growing into intimate friendship with God? Am I tempted, because of my sins or shortcomings, to stop reading Scripture and praying? When I feel like this, how does God feel?
The Entrance Antiphon encourages us to believe God is always working to set us free from whatever holds us back from him: “My eyes are ever fixed on the Lord, for he releases my feet from the snare.” God says, “I will prove my holiness through you” — his love, his mercy and power — by “gathering you from the ends of the earth. I will pour clean water on you and wash away all your sins. I will give you a new spirit within you.”
Is this a good reason to persevere? God accepts gradual conversion. So should we. All he asks is “forward motion.” And so in the Opening Prayer we pray, “When we are discouraged by our weakness, give us confidence in your love.”
The voices we hear
The Responsorial (Psalm 95) alerts us to the different “voices that cry in the desert.” If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts. There is God’s voice and there are other voices that come from our own predispositions, from the influence of the culture, or even from the devil. How do we know which is which?
Exodus 17: 3-7 warns us to be suspicious of any voice that leads toward discouragement or suggests doubt about God’s love, God’s reliability, God’s readiness to help us. The going was getting tough in the desert. The people were beginning to doubt they would ever reach the Promised Land. They were tempted to go back to the life they had left: security at the price of slavery. They complained to Moses: “Why did you ever make us leave Egypt?” What voice were they listening to?
It is characteristic of God to encourage, not discourage; to build up, not tear down. So the minute we notice that a train of thought is blocking our forward motion, leading us toward discouragement or less confidence in God’s love for us, we need to reject it. When a voice says, “You are just proud and delusional. What makes you think God would ask anything great of you? Be realistic. Be humble and settle for an ordinary, mediocre life. You are no disciple!” — that is the time to “sing joyfully to the Lord,” to “acclaim the Rock of our salvation” and dream great dreams, trusting not in what we are, but in what God is.
The basis of hope
Romans 5: 1-8 roots our reason for hope in the fact that God took flesh in Jesus and chose to die for us “while we were still weak.” Paul’s argument is, “Perhaps for a good person someone might actually dare to die. But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.”
If the worst sins we ever committed did not stop Jesus from dying for us, do we think the sins we are committing now will make him stop pouring out his grace on us? Having died to win us to himself, will he give up when it looks like he is losing us?
The problem is, when we feel discouraged, we look at ourselves and our failings instead of looking at Jesus and his love.
What characterizes God’s love is fidelity or steadfastness. The words Moses heard when God “showed him his glory” were: “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness” (Exodus 33:12 to 34:6). If we think more about what God is and less about what we are not, we will find the way out of discouragement.
Jesus the fisherman
John 4: 5-42 shows us how Jesus interacts with sinners. He initiates a conversation with a Samaritan woman he meets at the village well. (For the Jews the Samaritans were like heretics). He begins by asking her for a drink of water. Then, little by little he gets deeper and more personal with her. When she tells him she has no husband. Jesus answers, “You are right, for you have had five husbands, and the one you have now is not your husband.” But he gives her credit: “What you have said is true!”
Was Jesus judging her? The only obvious judgment he made was that she was worth talking to, and that she was able to respond to him with faith. And before the day was over, “many Samaritans from that city believed in him because of the woman's testimony.”
Conversion to Jesus — or deeper conversion to Jesus — can begin at any point in our lives, and it does not have to be immediately whole and entire. There is no record that Jesus even asked the woman he met to stop living with the man to whom she was not married. Maybe she wasn’t ready for that. Nor did he ask the Samaritans to give up their false beliefs. He accepted them as they were and was willing to work with them. The point he made to his disciples was, “Look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting!” They should focus, not on people’s sins, but on their potential. The role of his disciples is not to drive people away but to draw them in. This means accepting them as they are.
To accept others as they are, we have to believe that Jesus accepts us as we are.
The Liturgy of the Word puts us into direct, immediate contact with the inspired word of God. We don’t claim that everything in the Gospels is a direct quote from Jesus: each evangelist wrote from a particular point of view, intent on leading us to particular insights, using various sources. As one teacher put it, “See each Gospel as a meditation on the event of Jesus.”
The difference between the Gospels and anyone else’s meditation is that God says about the Gospels, “This is my meditation.” God’s point of view is always the right one, if we can discern what it is. And in the different Gospels he presents the Good News from various points of view, all of them reliable.
Other people’s meditations on the Good News — or their interpretations of the inspired meditations in the Gospels — are only more or less reliable. This includes — are you ready for a shock? — some viewpoints that have been passed down to us through the ages as “the teaching of the Church.”
The authentic teaching of the Church is always true, always reliable (if we understand and interpret it right). But not all the teachings in the Church are teachings of the Church. The bishops at the Second Vatican Council warned us that “believers can have more than a little to do with the birth of atheism” — and even more so with the widespread defection from the Church we see today:
To the extent that they are careless about their instruction in the faith, or present its teaching falsely, or even fail in their religious, moral or social life, they must be said to conceal rather than to reveal the true nature of God and of religion.
This is true of both official and non-official teachers. Even the “ordinary magisterium” of the Church is by definition not “infallible.” Recognizing this,
this Council urges all concerned to remove or correct any abuses, excesses or defects which may have crept in here or there, and so restore all things that Christ and God be more fully praised.
“All concerned” means every Christian. That is why it is essential that we all keep drinking from the pure spring of God’s own words — if for no other reason than to raise fruitful questions in our minds to which we can seek more careful answers. The Liturgy of the Word encourages us to do this.
Insight: Do I focus more on what blocks me — or others — from full relationship with Jesus, or on what there is in me — and in them — to work with?
Initiative: Decide never to let any sin or failing block you from interacting with Jesus in every way that is possible for you here and now.