Lenten Upset, for the Sake of the World

The Prodigal SonLent is nearing its end, as the academic year too move more quickly toward its conclusion, more hectic than ever; we can be excused if we shut out the world around us, and if we neglect the Lenten season itself.

But Lent can be the transformative moment we need, if we have been willing to listen in church; this year agan, we have been blessed with powerful stories about people on the edge, unprotected, yet in the end, in God’s presence:

Jesus driven by the Spirit into the desert, tested by but also testing the devil (Luke 4);

Abram encountering God in intense blackness, amid the slaughter of sacrifice (Genesis 15);

Jesus transfigured, illumined, blessed by God in the presence of three of his disciples, who awaken in his presence (Luke 9);

Moses encountering God in the burning bush, his life restored, and sent on mission (Exodus 3);

The angel tells Mary she is to be the mother of God (Luke 1; feast of the Annunciation)

The prodigal son, entirely lost, yet finding his way home again (Luke 15);

The woman caught in adultery, yet in the presence of Jesus given back life again (John 8).

At the heart of these stories, even regarding Jesus himself, is the contemplation of simple, bare humanity, stripped of pretenses and excuses, with nowhere to hide; bereft, and yet suddenly enlivened in the presence of God. Those who lose out are not those who suffer or undergo deep change, but those who are merely spectators; who didn’t think they were invited or think others shouldn’t be invited; who prefer to judge without being judged.

In the latter part of Lent, two stories stand out, about a man and a woman who have nothing at all. The prodigal son squanders his inheritance and is impoverished in a foreign land, surviving among the pigs. In his extremity, he realizes that he has one choice he can still make; he goes home, met by his father who has been waiting for him from the day he left. Only his disapproving brother cannot join the feast.

The woman caught in adultery is apparently dragged from the bed right into the temple, made to stand in the presence of Jesus in the public temple space where he is teaching. She — but not the man she slept with — is shamed in this way. The officials know that capital punishment is not within their power, and they are mostly interested in using her to trip up Jesus: will you adhere to the law and condemn the woman? Or ignore tradition and let her off? Either way, we will criticize you mercilessly.

The Woman caught in adultery

Much shorter than the prodigal son story in Luke, this scene, tucked away in John, has a Zen-like silence to it: we never hear what Jesus was beginning to teach; he never returns to the teaching once interrupted; apparently the entire crowd disappears by the scene’s end, as if the entire temple is emptied; Jesus does not argue with his antagonists, instead twice lapsing into silence, writing in the dust words we never get to read; the crowds begin to see in the woman not her sins, but their own, and one by one, beginning with the oldest, they put down their stones and drift away, abashed; the woman has nothing to say for herself, except at the end, when she realizes that only Jesus is there, and that she is free. She is alive again, and perhaps has sown seeds of new life in those who had just condemned her.

Abram and Moses, Jesus and his apostles, the errant son and the accused woman, and Mary discovering her astonishing new mission: we are invited to see ourselves as them at this increasingly tense moment in Lent. March and April 2019 have been a time of loss and evil, most terribly the slaughter in the mosques in New Zealand, but also the desperate and prolonged suffering of people at our borders; neglected prisoners in our despicable jails and prisons; the pain of abortion, and the sin of neglecting women and children in trouble; the environmental spiral downward, destructive floods and tornados, the death of species and coral reefs — and on top of it all, the continuing decay of our civil life in Washington.

Brooklyn jail

What can we do in a time of fragmentation? We can protest, shout denunciations, make plans and work for a better world — wonderful but not enough. Being brilliant or courageous or angry on one’s own is not enough: the righteous become self-righteous, the learned speak but do not act, the frustrated find new ways to excoriate their opponents, now their enemies.

Indeed, it is encounter with God that enables us to become the kind of people who make a difference. This is why we go to church: to hear these words of God, accosted by them, undone and redone by them. Yes, we can read them at home, but in community, we are caught up together, accused then healed, and in the sharing of the bread and wine made into Christ we too are made whole and holy, now inside the great stories, no longer onlookers.

Such is the Christian story this Lent: or if you wish, lose and find yourself in some other way: through Jewish or Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist eyes, or in other venerable traditions, whichever exposes us, illumines us, then gives us back our true selves. This is a religious dynamic: in the end, the world needs God more than us. Hollowed out, we become channels of God’s presence. (And yes, the parable of the prodigal son reminds us that we can forgive and be forgiven, even when God is not mentioned at all.)

Ahead of us lies Holy Week, and for a time things will get worse, death imminent, inescapable, our narrow gate: but again, the world needs people who die with Christ, to rise with him, if even civil society is to be safe for all, no one left behind.