Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent Reflection:
A colleague in the theology department here at BC has a small sign with a quote on his office door: “Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”
Even the best of us have moments from our past we’d like to forget. Not just the foolish or embarrassing days of adolescence, but the more serious moral failings we regret.
I once had a long and painful conversation with a gentleman who had served as a marine during the Vietnam War. He had volunteered for the war in its early days, but by the end of his two tours, he had come to believe that the U.S. was doing terrible things by prosecuting the war and that he had engaged in morally dubious actions himself. The conversation between us happened almost 50 years after he had left Vietnam. Yet the pain of his guilt could still bring him to tears as he talked about it.
He had gone on to marry, raise a family, work in a small company, and attain economic security. On many levels, one might conclude he had lived a good life, had loved and been loved, and he was a respected worker and friend. Yet he was crippled by a past that tied him in knots. He was a practicing Catholic, had confessed his past and received absolution long before we spoke. He had made his peace with God but had not made peace with himself. He was a man enslaved by his past.
The readings today remind us that our God is a God of the future. Ours is a God who opens up new possibilities for people if we have the eyes of faith to see that future. In the passage from the book of Isaiah, there is a recounting of the old things: the story of the Jewish people’s exodus from Egypt and the destruction of those Egyptians who sought to hunt down the Hebrew slaves who had left. But then we are told by the prophet that God has something more:“Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new!”
The reading from Isaiah is actually a part of the biblical book that is not from Isaiah’s hand. It comes from an unknown disciple of the original prophet, an author biblical scholars call Deutero Isaiah, or Second Isaiah. This author is writing in a vastly different situation than that of the original prophet. The Jewish people have been taken into captivity in Babylon, their homeland was put under siege, Jerusalem was ransacked. The nation no longer exists.
By the time of Deutero-Isaiah, the Jewish community had been in Babylon for at least three generations; many had never seen Jerusalem or their homeland. The old thing was the first exodus out of slavery in Egypt. Now the reader is told, Yahweh is doing a new thing; there will be a second exodus, one out of captivity in Babylon. Yahweh will once again lead the chosen people to their home in the land of Canaan.
The message is one of hope, of what God will do for the people in the near future. The people must ready themselves for this new exodus. However, Deutero-Isaiah’s message is not received by everyone with enthusiasm. The people will have to trek across the Syrian desert to return to a home many have never known. Some preferred their recent past, to stay in Babylon. Why risk such a journey? People have made a life in this new place; why change at this point? The prophetic message tries to help them see a new future, one with opportunities they can’t imagine. Most importantly, their God is not to be relegated to deeds done in some hazy, distant past. Yahweh is their future as well as their past. Some, however, were content to live in their past, were tied to it, were fearful of change.
In the gospel of John, we hear about a woman whose very life is determined by her past. She is an adulteress, a public sinner to be stoned to death by the norms of a patriarchal society. In many ways the story was not about the woman but about Jewish leaders seeking to entrap Jesus. Will Jesus support the Mosaic law of capital punishment for adultery and thereby oppose the Roman occupiers who controlled the death penalty? Or will he oppose the death penalty and thereby lose the support of those who reverence the Mosaic law? Jesus opts for neither but chooses something that overturns their categories. He turns the trap back upon the crowd by inviting them to act, and they slink away.
Then Jesus gives the woman her future when she had none; she was doomed to die. The future Jesus gives her really is new. She is to sin no more; she must change. She cannot run back to her lover. The woman is invited into a new way of living, one not tied to her past. She was not preordained to be a public sinner.
In the letter to the Philippians, Paul is clearly a man who does not live in the past. He goes so far as to call the past “rubbish” compared to his future. He will not allow himself to be defined by being a rabbi or any other aspect of his past. He lives for the Lord of his future. Paul knows that future is not simply determined, he acknowledges that he has not yet attained perfect maturity, but “I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus.” He goes on to remind his readers, “Just one thing: Forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.”
That is the invitation we are given this Lenten Sunday. We all have our past, and we can all feel constrained by it, weighted down by our failures, our disappointments, our weaknesses. But God’s word today reminds us that God has a future for each of us.
We spend these weeks of Lent preparing to take our baptismal vows all over again, to pledge to live by them. We are not captives to our past. We are people who have been called into a new life, a life that God frees us to live if we would only accept that it is not our past but our future that is the most important thing about us. We may be shaped by and informed by our past, but we are never simply determined and enslaved by it.
“Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”