5th Sunday of Lent
Preached April 7, 2019; St. Peter Catholic Church, The Dalles, Oregon
Last Sunday we heard the well-known parable of the prodigal son. The prodigal son returns home, is welcomed by his father, restored to his place in the household, and there is the big celebration with the fatted calf.
Now we can ask a question: after the celebration is over, then what? What happens in the life of the prodigal son? What does it look like?
In today’s Gospel we meet with the woman caught in adultery. Unlike the prodigal son she did not recognize her misery, come to her senses, and seek the Lord. Rather she was rather rudely and violently plucked from her life of sin and set in front of him as a challenge. She had by no means been looking for him, but in a most surprising way she encountered his mercy, when he said to her, Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.
Once again we can ask a question about the sequel: Then what? Supposing that she listened to the Lord, what did her life look like afterwards?
Today’s 2nd reading from St. Paul gives us an answer to these questions, but first we need to recall who St. Paul is. He was like the prodigal son in the gravity of his sin. He was also a bit like the woman caught in adultery in the violence with which he was placed in the Lord’s presence. The difference is that in his case it was the Lord himself who laid violent hands upon the violent Saul.
St. Paul writes about himself, saying, I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and an arrogant man, but I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief. (1 Tim 1:13) And, You have heard of my former way of life in Judaism, how I persecuted the church of God beyond measure and tried to destroy it. (Gal 1:13)
The Acts of the Apostles describes what happened when St. Paul breathing murderous threats against the disciples of the Lord made his way to Damascus and as he was nearing the city was suddenly thrown to the ground when Jesus himself appeared to him in a bright light from heaven. Jesus appeared to him not to condemn him, but to have mercy on him and to change him. In today’s 2nd reading we hear from that changed and changing St. Paul.
I consider everything as loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
There you have it, seeking above all to know the Lord Jesus Christ: that is what the life of someone who has encountered mercy of our Lord Jesus Christ, like the prodigal son or the woman caught in adultery, should be like.
For our part, though, we should not wait to reach such a point of misery as did the prodigal son; nor should we wait for the Lord do intervene in our life in a violently fashion as in the case of the woman caught in adultery or St. Paul. Indeed, we should be willing to believe the witnesses to Christ’s mercy and, relying on their testimony, we should seek the Lord, who has first come in search of us.
Jesus revealed himself to St. Paul on the road to Damascus, nevertheless, despite such a powerful encounter with Jesus, St. Paul does think that he yet knows him as he should. Knowing him and coming to know him more is the most important thing in St. Paul’s life, his overriding priority, what determines everything else.
How does a person come to know Jesus Christ? It is not necessary to have a vision of him in his glory, like St. Paul did. Rather, like St. Paul, a person must be conformed to Christ’s death through baptism and by intention seek to be conformed to the pattern of Christ’s death, to share his suffering, and so experience within oneself also the power of his risen life.
Inspired by St. Paul, St. Thomas More, imprisoned in the Tower of London, awaiting execution, prayed for the grace “of worldly substance, friends, liberty, life and all, to set the loss at naught, for the winning of Christ.” (Quoted by Robert Cardinal Sarah, The Power of Silence, pg. 217)
What about doing good and avoiding evil? What about doing what is right and just? St. Paul clearly tells us that it is secondary to knowing Jesus Christ. We do not justify ourselves before God by doing good works, but we are justified before God by believing in Jesus Christ and letting our life be transformed in him through the power of the Holy Spirit. Doing what is right and just comes as the work of the Holy Spirit within those who have come to know Jesus Christ.
Let us consider one of the commandments, Thou shalt not kill. Jesus warns us against even becoming angry against another without reason.
Now let us imagine two men working together in the field. One of them, who knows and seeks to know Jesus Christ, makes a mistake, the other insults him because of the mistake. The Christian, being human, made of flesh and blood, feels the sting of the insult and feels the anger beginning to rise within himself, but the words of Jesus come to his mind, Do not be angry with your brother. (Cf. Mt 5:21) This is not some impersonal law or arbitrary imposition, this is Jesus speaking to him. Nevertheless, the anger is there and it is growing stronger.
What does he do? He bows his head slightly and closes his eyes for a moment; he prays interiorly, “Lord, not my will but your will be done. Lord, let me die to myself so that you might live within me.” The anger within him dissolves and the peace of Christ enters his heart. He looks up and says to the man who insulted him, with simplicity and calm, “I am sorry. I will try to do better.” He has just been conformed to Christ’s death, he has experienced within himself the power of Christ’s resurrection, he has grown in the knowledge of Jesus Christ, and, by the way, he has fulfilled the law with a righteousness that goes deeper than that of the scribes and Pharisees. (cf. Mt 5:20)
Now, a man is unlikely to conquer himself in this way if he does not otherwise cultivate a life of prayer, if he does not otherwise die to himself so as to ‘waste time’ getting to know Jesus in prayer. One indispensable way to come to know Jesus in prayer is to come here into his presence in the church, to kneel before him in the tabernacle, to present oneself before him saying something like, “Here I am, Lord. I place myself at your service. I place all of my cares in your hands. Do with me what you will.”
St. Paul is already far advanced on this path of dying to self and living in Christ. He has written: I have been crucified with Christ; yet I live, no longer I, but Christ lives in me; insofar as I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself up for me. (Gal 2:19-20)
Yet, far advanced as he is he also tells us today that he has not yet achieved the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, but that he keeps going forward, straining like a champion athlete, pursuing his hope, taking nothing for granted. Yes, Jesus Christ has taken possession of him and lives within him, but his reign, his kingdom within him must continue to grow, he must daily die anew that Christ might live, until finally God will be all in all. (cf. 1 Cor 15:28)
As with St. Paul, so it should be with us.