One of the most interesting conversations I ever had at a party took place long ago in grad school. I only spoke to this psychology student one time in my life but I still remember what he told me. Dysfunctional families all behave the same way, while healthy families display an apparently infinite variety of behaviors. For example, a family with an addict in it will put all its energy into supporting the addiction through patterns of codependency, with each member playing one of several roles that can be found in all addicts’ families. No matter what situations arise, a dysfunctional family will choose the same behaviors. Meanwhile, a healthy family will respond to situations with creativity. Members will genuinely support one another, but what form that might take is anybody’s guess. I found this a fascinating fact because it shatters the myth that Evil is exciting. Who wants to do the same thing over and over? Goodness alone offers opportunity and creativity. The implications light a fire of hope in my heart. If we choose goodness, imagine the possibilities for change!

In today’s reading from Isaiah, God proclaims, “See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” God’s message echoes the message of the grad student. Isaiah’s original audience is the exiled Israelites, whose country had been wiped out, whose Temple had been destroyed and who were slaves in a foreign land, Babylon. They lacked faith in God before their defeat and now they lack it even more. Yet here is the Lord, “who opens a way in the sea.” This is of course a reference to when God opened the Red Sea to lead the enslaved Israelites out of Egypt. It happened seven or eight hundred years prior but Isaiah uses the present tense — opens, not opened — to remind his audience that God is at work now, endlessly, providing life-giving water in the desert, creating a path through the wasteland. This message is likewise meant for us today. God is at work right now, doing something new. Do we not perceive it or are we too bogged down in the same old patterns of dysfunctional behavior we always follow?

In the Gospel, the scribes and the Pharisees use a part of the Law of Moses, which for them was more than a millennium old, as a tool for their deceit and self-righteousness. They do not care about the human being whose life is at stake. They are doing the same old human dance of grabbing for power and defeating an enemy. See! Jesus does something new. He writes on the ground; is it a new law? Whatever he wrote was not preserved or even read. Does he want to avoid the trap of a law that is literally and then figuratively set in stone, as the Law of Moses had become? Instead he quietly proposes a new approach to the old law: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone.” Jesus gives them a way out of the they have set for themselves; he gives them a way to see the woman with mercy. The marvel is they take it! Yet the truth is that we all want a way out of the same old patterns of destructive behavior. We need God to proclaim into our lives, “In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers.”

Jesus points the woman toward the future: “Go and from now on do not sin any more.” Mercy is not a free ride. It is about making real change. Similarly, writing from his jail cell to the Philippians, Paul aims himself toward the future, not the past or even the present. The passage we read is in the middle of a warning he is giving to the Philippians about relying on following the Law of Moses to earn salvation. Our own actions will not accomplish what is already a done deal for Christians. Paul writes, “I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus.” The part that has yet to happen is that we have to take possession of this reality. Paul says, “It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it.” Paul pursues “the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.” This gives us a new twist on the popular American pursuit of upward mobility. All three of our readings involve people at death’s door, called to aim themselves at the mercy of God. This does not mean the current crisis will simply disappear. They will not suddenly be successful as humans measure success. They will know Christ Jesus “and the power of his Resurrection.” As Lent continues, can we pursue this same prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus? The guaranteed results are sure to be a change for the better.

  • Which patterns of dysfunction in your life, community or world would you like to see changed? Give them to God in prayer.
  • Apply Jesus’ perspective of mercy to an old problem. What possibilities arise?

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