The Fifth Sunday of Lent [C]
Isaiah 43:16-21 + Philippians 3:8-14 + John 8:1-11
For His sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish ….
Lent focuses our attention upon human sin, but always against the backdrop of divine mercy. Never think about your sins without first reflecting on God’s merciful love for you. Likewise, never think of God’s love for you without also recalling the depths to which Jesus sank to pour that love into your sinful heart.
It’s in light of this two-fold perspective—human sin and divine mercy—that we listen to Saint Paul today. In today’s Second Reading, St. Paul preaches to the Philippians about several stark contrasts: about loss and gain; suffering and power; death and resurrection. For example, he explains to them: “For His sake I have accepted the loss of all things, and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in Him”.
In our ordinary lives, we tend to think of morality only in terms of good and evil. That is the foundational distinction: to do the good and to reject the evil. If we don’t accept in our minds this most basic moral distinction and shape our choices accordingly, we have little hope of reaching Heaven.
However, that most basic moral distinction between good and evil is a foundation, on top of which we as Christians are meant to build. St. Paul gives us tools to build our moral lives towards Heaven: or as he puts it, “to continue [our] pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.”
The challenge in rising to a higher level of moral growth is to be single-hearted in our pursuit of God. To be single-hearted is—in the words of Jesus’ beatitudes—to be “pure of heart”. Of course, some might assume that Jesus’ statement “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” [Mt 5:8] is referring to sexual purity. In fact, Jesus is saying not only that, but much more as well.
When gold is tried in fire, impurities are burned away. The gold becomes more pure, which is to say that it becomes more “gold-like”, which is to say that it becomes more itself. It’s the same with an individual human person—such as yourself—when you purify your heart of foreign desires: that is, desires foreign to the nature of the human heart.
In the language of the First of the Ten Commandments, when you purify your heart of “strange gods” (or “alien gods”), your heart becomes more pure. Your heart becomes more “human-like”, which is to say that you become more who God created you to be. It’s as simple as Saint Augustine’s famous confession to God: “You stir man to take pleasure in praising You, because You have made us for Yourself, and our heart is restless until it rests in You.”
Of course, we’re tempted in the modern world to dismiss the First Commandment as irrelevant. After all, who among us actually worships “alien gods”? We’re not like the ancient Greeks and Romans who worshipped Aphrodite and Jupiter, Mercury and Athena. So how can you and I usefully hold up the First Commandment before our lives, to see if our hearts are single-hearted: that is, pure in being focused on God alone?
Before even answering, some might reply that it’s impossible for a regular Christian—who is married and has children—to be focused on God alone. There are too many other things to worry about in life! A similar reply might be made by a parish priest, who can hardly spend all day in prayer given his administrative responsibilities. However, those replies would miss the point. The First Commandment does not command us to be cloistered monks and nuns.
The First Commandment guides our lives in commanding that the whole of human life be held up to the light of God’s love. This includes everyone and every thing in our lives. It’s because created things are good that God wants them in our lives.
Every thing and everyone is meant to mirror God’s love to us, not to serve as a mirror in which we gaze on our own self. This contrast is the contrast that Saint Paul draws in our Second Reading, between “the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus” and considering “everything as a loss”. Accepting this loss as St. Paul encourages is how we build on the foundation of the moral life, upwards towards the life of God Himself.