In our Gospel reading for the Palm Sunday procession, Jesus sends his disciples into Jerusalem to prepare for his triumphal entry. They are told to untether a donkey, and if there is any protest from the owner, they are to say simply, “The Master has need of it.” Strictly speaking, God has need of nothing, since he is the unconditioned act of existence. God doesn’t need our praise or our good works or anything. But this phrase signals the wonderful truth that God allows us to cooperate with his grace so that we can participate in the work that he wants to do. He gives us what Aquinas called “the dignity of causality.” We are privileged to be instruments in his hands.
In this week's Gospel, we hear the story of the woman caught in adultery, a tale that has beguiled Christians and non-Christians for two millennia. The story displays our constant temptation to use knowledge of God’s law to hurt others, not to liberate them. We gossip, we scapegoat, we blame—and we convince ourselves that we’re just following the divine law in pointing out other people’s problems. But then enters Jesus, who affirms that the law's primary purpose is to make us humble, to draw us to higher attainment. Without denigrating the law in the least, Jesus reaches out in mercy in order to brings sinners back to life.
One the greatest Protestant theologians of the twentieth century, Paul Tillich, made a distinction between heteronomy (law from another), autonomy (law from oneself), and what he called “theonomy” (law of God). This week, we have the privilege to consider what is arguably the most magnificent and spiritually rich of Jesus’ parables—the story of the Prodigal Son—and in this familiar story, you’ll see the dynamics of these three approaches on clear display.
The readings for this second Sunday of Lent awaken a sense of wonder, of a world beyond ours, a mystical consciousness. In the first reading with Abraham and in the Gospel account of the Transfiguration, we encounter mountains, darkness, voices, and dazzling light, all of which signal the breakthrough of a higher world.
Lent is a time of paring down—a time spent in the desert, if you will—as exemplified by Jesus’ forty days of fasting in these arid, barren lands. He was tempted three times by Satan, and rejected each attempt, giving glory to God at every turn. This is the lesson for us: that we make God the center of our lives and not test him. We are here to do his will, which is clarified through our own Lenten sacrifices.
Our Gospel for this weekend comes from the end of the Sermon on the Plain, which is St. Luke’s version, more or less, of the Sermon on the Mount in St. Matthew’s account. Jesus has been operating as the definitive spiritual teacher here, and at the end of his address, he has some strong things to say about false spiritual teachers. Every spiritual teacher and guru is eager to tell you what’s wrong with you. But unless they’ve surrendered to Christ and found salvation in him themselves, they are absolutely in no position to help you.
The philosopher Jacques Derrida reflected on what he called the aporia or dilemma of the gift. The upshot seems to be that it is virtually impossible truly to give a gift, for gift-giving always locks us into an economy of exchange and obligation. But there is one great exception to the Derridean dilemma, and that is the Lord God. Jesus’ recommendations in the magnificent Gospel for today are not for the natural person, but the supernatural person, who loves with the very love of God.
I would like to focus on the brief but extremely powerful passage from the book of the prophet Jeremiah, which is our first reading for this weekend. It is taken from the seventeenth chapter of the prophet’s book, and the context is a fierce upbraiding that Jeremiah is giving for the idolatry of the people. What we have here is the pithy formula, the simple program, that ought to govern our spiritual lives at the most fundamental level.
There is a wonderful parallel between our first reading and the Gospel this week. The first reading is taken from the sixth chapter of the book of the prophet Isaiah, and it has to do with the call of Isaiah; and the Gospel is from the fifth chapter of Luke, and it deals with the call of the first disciples of Jesus. Both stories, in remarkably similar ways, lay out the essential dynamics of the spiritual life.