Fifth Sunday of Lent, April 7, 2019
Isaiah reminds exiled Jews of how God had liberated their ancestors from Egypt. The prophet has been blunt in blaming the people for the unfaithfulness that led to their exile. Now he is encouraging in describing their restoration.
Saint Paul had tried to earn God's favor by keeping the Jewish law. Following his conversion, he realized how God gives that favor to us in Christ, undeserved and unearned. Gratitude makes Paul want to imitate Christ in everything.
Our gospel, like our first reading, is a dramatic story of undeserved forgiveness and a command to live a life free from sin.
The Historical and Literary Background: This part of the book of Isaiah (chapters 40-55) was written at the end of Judah's 60-year exile in Babylon. The people are soon to be allowed to make the journey home, through some inhospitable terrain, to Judah and its capital Jerusalem. We know by heart the famous opening couplets of chapter 40, describing God leading that journey:
"A voice cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill made low ..."
The passage you are to proclaim has that same spirit, with these added details:
The larger context shows that Isaiah was blunt in telling Judah it had suffered the exile because it had been unfaithful to the Covenant, and that God was forgiving them by liberating them.
Our Liturgical Setting: Judah's situation was, on a national level, like that of the woman in today's gospel, and Jesus' response to her situation is as surprising as God's response to Judah's distress in Babylon.
Your Proclamation: You're a prophet speaking for God trying to encourage a dispirited people. So:
Then pause again, and resume a more stately pace, building to a majestic-sounding final statement of purpose, "that they might announce my praise."
The Historical Background, Paul's Biography: Saint Paul had tried all his life to earn God's favor (to have what he calls "righteousness," sometimes translated "justice," in the eyes of God) by carefully keeping the law of Moses and by zealously doing what he thought God wanted. See his catalog of religious merit badges in the larger context of Philippians 3. His conversion to Christ made him re-evaluate all that "as loss" and "rubbish." (In the Greek, the word rendered "rubbish" means a piece of cowhide so nasty that a tanner can make nothing useful of it. Now that's a great metaphor for worthless.)
Verse by Verse: We've summarized verse 8 above.
Proclaiming It: This is Paul at his most candid. He speaks openly about how his theological insights came to bear on his personal life. So it calls for careful proclamation. You're speaking as if you were a man who is admitting a colossal, decades-long, well-meaning mistake. He's telling good friends (the Christians at Philippi) how his current way of life contrasts with his former way. He's emphatic about it, too.
Prepare for your proclamation by reading all of Chapter 3, studying it until you understand the development that Paul has come through. Then read these verses slowly, with contrast and emphasis so that an uninitiated listener can appreciate the development, too. Pause where your common sense, persuaded perhaps by what you're read here, tells you the logical breaks are. Don't be bound by the punctuation or lack of it in your particular lectionary.
Max Beckmann (German, 1884-1950), Christ and the Sinner, 1917; oil on canvas; 58 3/4 x 49 7/8 inches; Saint Louis Art Museum, Bequest of Curt Valentin 185:1955; © 2020 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York, NY / VG Bild-Kunst, Bonn.
The Saint Louis Art Museum has long championed Beckmann, and highlighted this painting during its 2021 exhibition "Storm of Progress: German Art from 1800". SLAM's social media post at the time said, "Max Beckmann was a rising star in Germany in the years before World War II, but when his art was labeled “degenerate” by the Nazis, his paintings were taken down from state-owned museums. Years after Beckmann was forced to flee to Holland, his work Christ and the Sinner appeared in the infamous Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art) show, a propaganda exhibition organized by the Nazi government to indoctrinate Germans against Expressionist and abstract art.
Click here for more about the painting, including more detailed graphics.
This page updated February 13, 2021