Breath of the Spirit Reflection: The Key Ingredient to Lent
The statement, “Old habits die hard,” dates back at least to 1758 and an article in The London Chronicle by Benjamin Franklin. But the truth behind the truism – that people get stuck in patterns of behavior – has been around much longer than that. This week’s passage from Isaiah dates from the 6th century BCE, and it refers to God’s action to get the people of Israel unstuck. Isaiah seems to understand “doing something new” as a particularly divine act. Perhaps that is because so much of what we humans have been doing over and over again shows our tribalism, our misogyny, and our fear of the Other – all traits laid bare in today’s gospel. In this light, the season of Lent becomes a 40-day exercise in trying something new, in persistent attempts to break the habitual ways of thinking and acting that keep us separate from one another.
April 3, 2022: Fifth Sunday of Lent
Psalm 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6
The Key Ingredient to Lent: Something New
A reflection by Richard P. Young
My husband likes to watch The Food Network. Occasionally we will see a cooking competition that really tests the creativity of the contestants. You may hear the host say something like this: chefs, you have one hour to come up with a dessert that incorporates an ingredient that you can’t imagine would ever go with a dessert. Your ingredients is…pepperoni! What?! In a dessert?! Sometimes a preacher looks at the readings for a particular Sunday and feels like he or she has been given a big slab of pepperoni: just try coming up with a homily using this passage. Well, today’s readings are not THAT challenging, but we do have a problem reading today, a problem ingredient, if you will – and another one that is fairly simple.
First, the easy one – from Isaiah. It was written to give encouragement to Israel’s exiles in Babylon. They really needed encouragement. They were stuck there, far from home, and they felt as though God had abandoned them. The prophet, channeling God, reminds them of the story of the exodus, when their ancestors were stuck in Egypt, enslaved by Pharaoh. God’s people were rescued then, and it could happen again. But, Isaiah tells the exiles, don’t just think about the past; think about now – the new thing that God is doing for you now. “See, I am doing something new. Do you not perceive it? In the desert, I make a way” for you – a way that will get you un-stuck.
Now, about that problem passage: the gospel reading. It’s a problem for at least a couple of reasons. First, what’s it doing in John’s gospel? The story is not in the earliest manuscripts of the gospel. Scholars almost universally agree that it was composed by someone other than John or one of his associates. Some speculate it may have been written by Luke, and they did a little word processing – a cut, copy, and paste – and presto! Now it’s John 8: 1-11. Thematically and linguistically, it just doesn’t fit well with the rest of John’s gospel, and whoever edited the gospel to include this passage clearly had an agenda, which I will mention shortly.
But the more glaring problem with this “ingredient” is one that has us asking not “what’s it doing in John’s gospel,” but “what’s it doing in our lectionary?” To hear this passage is to be reminded of the gross inequality, the insane patriarchy, the ugly misogyny of biblical times. Of course, not just biblical times – a lot of that goes on these days as well. It’s a hard passage to hear, even though an inclusive language lectionary makes a noble attempt to clean it up, acknowledging that there was also a man involved in the adultery, but his male privilege protected him from any consequences. It is hard to stomach this story of sexism and humiliation and shame, and most of us can probably understand the argument that it should just be stricken from the lectionary, if not from the Bible altogether.
Outside of Jesus, the men in the story don’t give a damn about the woman. She is a prop – exhibit A in a legal argument the purpose of which was to trap Jesus. They had no authority to condemn someone to death; only the Roman occupiers could do that. But Moses’ Law says she is to be stoned. Jesus is asked what should be done. If he says, “Let her go,” they could say he has no respect for religious law. If he says, “Let her be stoned,” they could say he doesn’t care about Roman law or even his own teachings about forgiveness. What to do? He does what any of us would do when stuck “between a rock and a hard place.” He stalls for time. Jesus stoops down and traces something in the dirt, although the story’s author doesn’t tell us what. Here’s my theory: Jesus was making a list of all the things that were wrong about this situation: the insensitivity and cruelty of the woman’s accusers, their failure to see her as a child of God, their rude interruption of Jesus’ teaching, their fake outrage at the violation of Jewish law, their lack of compassion, their hardness of heart. Perhaps to Jesus her transgression seemed minor compared with all of that. Perhaps it was just such a list that made Jesus realize that everyone there needed to get un-stuck, so he turned his attention to the crowd and called them to a fuller and deeper humanity. “Look at my list,” he might have said. “If you can honestly say that you always avoid these unloving attitudes, then here’s a rock; go to it.”
Our nation, our world, has an ugly history. It hasn’t all been ugly, of course, but it’s hard not to get a bit depressed when you study it. We have a history of brutal exploitation of people who are not well-off, white, heterosexual, and male. We haven’t been able to go very long between wars, sometimes conducting more than one at a time. The last century was by far the bloodiest ever. Greed has fueled our interference in other countries. There have also always been powerful people who have behaved as if they could harm the environment without paying an awful price. That’s our heritage. It is what it is, and in many ways, it continues to this day. So, we know that, if we don’t honestly look at what Jesus may have written in the dust, if we don’t assess our historic contribution to the world’s pain, we won’t get un-stuck. We will continue throwing stones and miss out on a richer and more fulfilling life. Our history, including our Biblical history, exposes our frequent lack of compassion. The stories that remind us of that need to be told! As hard as they are to hear, they need to be told. It’s like the need to keep telling the story of the Holocaust, as well as the story of our own enslavement of human beings from Africa. I remember years ago seeing Schindler’s List. It was disturbing beyond words. I never want to see it again, but it’s good that I did.
I mentioned earlier about an agenda that the author of today’s gospel story might have had. To understand that agenda, a question that is always good to ask is this: what is it about Jesus that inspired the writing of this story? I’m thinking that this person may have been pondering the Isaiah passage that we heard, where God says, “I am doing something new. Do you not perceive it?” Perhaps the author is telling us how Jesus embodies that “something new.” Christ, as the Eternal Word, as humanity’s light, a light that shines in the darkness, a light no darkness can extinguish – all descriptions of the Christ that are in the prologue to John’s gospel. As all of that, Christ is the new thing that God is doing. Jesus, the Christ, is the one who breaks down barriers between male and female, rich and poor, old and young. The Christ is the new thing of God that expands our consciousness and teaches us to see beyond nationality or ethnicity or religion or sex or sexual orientation or gender identity – the new thing that moves us beyond the limits of religious law or civil law or custom and makes us instead move toward building a morality based on compassion. Our gospel story today, with all the old ugliness it exposes, presents a contrast with the Christ, the “new thing” that refuses to condemn, that disarms the rock-throwers, that brings us home from spiritual exile, that gets the stuck unstuck, that makes a way for us through the desert of our darkness and shame. That, as I see it, is the agenda of our mystery author.
God says through Isaiah, “See, I am doing something new,” and then asks, “Do you not perceive it?” Sadly, the answer too often is no, we don’t. A problem with Christians is that we fail so often to see the newness inspired by the one after whom we are named and whose Spirit is within us. The gospel stories and sayings, which can stir the imagination, are often seen as just too old and familiar to move us to create our own Good News. The truth is, whenever violence is avoided in the name of Christ, that’s something new. When I refuse to pick up a stone and condemn someone, that’s something new. Each time love and compassion triumph over misogyny or racism or heterosexism, that’s something new. When grudges are let go of, when kindness is preferred over the demands of the law, when people fighting depression, anxiety, addiction are given support, even when they’re a huge pain in the butt, that’s something new. When renewable energy is chosen over fossil fuels, when even the smallest step is taken to reduce one’s carbon footprint, that’s something new. There is always newness, glorious newness, when, in the name of Christ, God’s people drop their stones and choose justice and love and peace. All are, therefore, rendered a little less stuck in ways that are old and selfish.
Lent, as I see it, is a time to sharpen our perception so that the newness that God does through Christ does not pass us by. “Do you not perceive it?” What newness are you are encountering – or doing – during this season of renewal?
Rev. Richard P. Young is a retired Catholic priest and mental health counselor. He co-chairs the Social Justice Committee of Dignity/Dayton’s Living Beatitudes Community and has worked with several Dignity chapters since the late 70s.
He once served for a term on the national board of DignityUSA and has attended all the national conventions/conferences since 1981. He is married to DignityUSA’s national secretary, Bob Butts.