Ask your presider to tell your listeners (or tell them yourself):

Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 13, 2016

Before the first reading:

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.

After the psalm, before the second reading:

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.

Before the gospel acclamation:

Our gospel, like our first reading, is a dramatic story of undeserved forgiveness and a command to live a life free from sin.

First Reading, Isaiah 43:16-21

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 "way in the sea" and the snuffed out army and charioteers refer to the memory of how God liberated the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, several centuries before the Babylonian Captivity.
  • Those events of the past are not the only liberation to savor. A new one is afoot.
  • The prospect of a trip homeward through the desert is daunting, but God will make the desert anew. Thus the drought will be relieved with springs and rivers, and the usually threatening wild animals will cower before God leading the people.

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 new, 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:

  1. You appeal to their collective memory.
  2. You pepper them with quick, incisive phrases about the newness of what you're doing.
  3. You address their fears about doing what you ask of them.
Observe this three-part structure by pausing after part 1 ("... quenched like a wick"). Then adopt a quick pace and staccato delivery for:

Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
See, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth,
do you not perceive it?
In the desert I make a way,
in the wasteland, rivers.

Then pause again, and resume a more stately pace, building to a majestic-sounding final statement of purpose, "that they might announce my praise."

Second Reading, Philippians 3:8-14

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.

  • Verse 9 ([that I may] be found in [Christ] ...) contrasts two ways one might get righteousness, that is, a right relationship with God. The failed way is any righteousness of my own, based on [my keeping of] the law. The only real way is to accept righteousness as an undeserved gift of God's grace. Faith here means belief that Jesus Christ has won this righteousness for us. Faith also means that honest admission that I cannot keep any law well enough to earn righteousness, and the confidence that God is good enough to give it anyway.
  • Verse 10 (... to know him [Christ] and the power of his resurrection ...): Unfortunately, the New American Bible translation, used in most Roman Catholic churches in the U.S., appends this as a run-on sentence spilling sloppily out of verse 9. The 1972 edition of the NAB made verse 10 a separate sentence: "I wish to know Christ and the power flowing from his resurrection; likewise to know how to share in his sufferings by being formed into the pattern of his death." In any case, note that Paul loves Christ so much as to want to share in his sufferings, even in his death.
  • Verse 11 returns to Paul's desire to share Christ's resurrection, even now. This verse is also rendered more separately in some translations, e.g., the New Revised Standard Version: "if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead."
  • Verses 12 and 13: The "it" which Paul has not yet taken hold of is that righteousness. He acknowledges the progressive character of spiritual growth. But again, in a new way, he says the initiative and power are on God's side, not his own: I haven't grasped it yet, but I have been grasped by Christ.
  • Verse 14 reiterates the ongoing nature of the spiritual journey. The expression "forgetting what lies behind" refers to Paul's prior attempts at self-righteousness, and perhaps his persecution of the church before his conversion (mentioned in verse 6, immediately before our liturgical passage). This forgetting of the past ties this reading to today's first reading, where Judah is invited by a forgiving God to forget its past sins and their dreadful consequences, and to today's gospel, a well known, vivid story of Jesus forgiving a sinner.

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.

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Links to other smart commentaries on this week's readings

Credit for the picture at the top:

Rembrandt, The Woman Taken in Adultery, 1644, The National Gallery of the United Kingdom.

Lector's Notes should be easily readable on any device, including small-screen ones like cell phones and tablets. This is among the first of a few hundred pages to be converted to a responsive format (responsive to the kind of screen you are using). So when you're not serving as lector, and you arrive at church and mute your cell phone, you can brief yourself on the readings you're about to hear. Format conversion is a work-in-progress and will be so until maybe April of 2018.

This page updated January 28, 2016