With regard to last week’s readings, Jim McCoy began in meditation on William Stringfellow’s description of the freedom of the church… “you are freer than you think.” During Lent, worship in our congregation recalls repeatedly Jesus’ temptation in the desert, which echoes the Exodus from Egypt and the Israelites’ wandering in the desert. Prior to the gospel reading, we sing “forty days and forty nights/thou was fasting in the wild/forty days and forty nights/tempted, and yet undefiled….” If the dramatic event of liberation from the tyrannical Pharaoh speaks to us clearly of what we are freed from, the desert experience is key to learning what we are freed for.
(This week it is especially important to avoid the temptation for Christians to make of the Jews that “other” over and against whom we define ourselves. We must take care not to oppose the story of God’s saving works in Israel—including the transformative education through which they receive that story—to the story of Jesus and his church. If we do so, we will gravely misjudge the freedom to which we have been called.)
What have we been set free for? God has freed us through the gift of taking part in God’s story, and during Lent our liturgy reminds us that freedom involves making God’s story our own. As recent posts have illustrated, we do so by finding a rhythm which—for us—involves moving back and forth between receiving God’s story as gift and embracing it as a task. “O God, command what you will,” Augustine prayed, “and give what you command…” Our task is to learn to receive God’s gifts; we become free as we learn our lives don’t belong to us.
In last week’s gospel, Jesus’ words rouse his hearers from the comfort of self-satisfaction by making them aware of their need for repentance, of how close they are to death. Close but not yet there, as God’s mercy holds back the tide of fate, and not only that. Jesus is the good gardener of the fruitless fig tree, aiding it to bear the fruit God intends. Having been given the time of grace, do we as the church recognize the need for cultivation to bear the fruit of freedom for God?
This week’s readings, with talk of celebrating Passover in the promised land and becoming a “new creation” in Christ (Joshua and 2 Corinthians) seem to anticipate the first fruits of freedom. In Joshua 5, the Israelites have crossed the Jordan, Joshua has been exalted, Jericho has fallen and the people are renewing their covenant with God in a land “flowing with milk and honey.” The Lord pronounces, “Today I have rolled away from you the disgrace of Egypt.” (5:9) And yet, echoes of the desert journey, along with the wounds of circumcision, remain, “For the Israelites traveled forty years in the wilderness, until all the nation, the warriors who came out of Egypt, perished, not having listened to the voice of the Lord.”(5:7) Freedom is difficult, a task.
“From now on, therefore…” begins our selection from 2 Corinthians, signaling that ‘the times, they are a-changin’.’ A clearer proclamation of God’s victory in Christ could not be sought than this: “So if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation: everything old has passed away; see, everything has become new!” (2:17) And yet the very form in which the Corinthians are addressed—proclamation which is also an exhortation (“we entreat you…!”)—recalls how the gift of freedom is also a task.
The parable of the “Prodigal Son” would seem to offer a neat encapsulation of the gospel story. Humankind’s rebellion from the creator is clearly depicted, together with its consequences. The repentance first proclaimed by John the Baptist is also portrayed, followed by the father’s exceedingly generous reception and celebration of his lost son.
In an intriguing rendition of this story, the poet Rainer Maria Rilke imagines that it was the father’s love that drove the younger son away. And it is that love, or the fear of receiving it, that most terrifies him about the prospect of return. The son returns to welcoming arms of the family he left behind:
[The son], the one who was recognized, had no longer thought, preoccupied as he was, that love could still exist. It is easy to understand how, of everything that happened then, only this has been handed down to us: his gesture, the incredible gesture which had never been seen before, the gesture of supplication with which he threw himself at their feet, imploring them not to love. (emphasis added)
Love here is a constraint, an unbearable confinement in being bound to the other. For him, freedom is not gift, but achievement. In this, he resembles the elder son, whose (self-righteous) achievements stand in the way of his accepting God’s story as gift.
But to fail in this is to live in the dark. It is to spin a yarn by which one can never free oneself from oneself, and for God. Thus, Rilke’s strange rendition helps us to see that part of the difficulty for us of receiving God’s story is our sinful conception of freedom, for which God’s love is perceived a threat.
If the story which holds us within false freedom is…,well, false, our freedom from self-deception requires wisdom: the wisdom of God found in confession. “While I kept silence, my body wasted away through my groaning all day long.” (Ps. 32:3) In this week’s psalm, we find misery coupled with ignorance; wisdom is tied to acknowledgment and confession of sin. “Then I acknowledged my sin to you, and I did not hide my iniquity… and you forgave the guilt of my sin.” (32:5)
Let us turn to God to confess our sin, acknowledging dependence and discovering our true freedom. In the wisdom of God’s counsels let us celebrate God’s steadfast love with the psalmist: “Be glad in the LORD and rejoice, O righteous, and shout for joy, all you upright in heart.” (32:11)