3rd Sunday of Lent – God’s Love for Us

Woman at the Well, Carl Heinrich Bloch,
c. 1865 to 1879, Chapel at Frederiksborg Palace, Copenhagen.

Jesus answered and said to her,
“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again;
but whoever drinks the water I shall give will never thirst;
the water I shall give will become in him
a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”
The woman said to him,
“Sir, give me this water, so that I may not be thirsty
or have to keep coming here to draw water.”
(John 4:13–15)

Fr. Smith’s Commentary on the Second Reading
Third Sunday of Lent
Romans 5:1–2, 5–8
March 12, 2023

We return today to the letter of Paul to the Romans. This was our second reading for the first week of Lent and we will read from it again on the 5th Sunday. Romans is Paul’s closest attempt in putting his thoughts in order and it is often used at Mass. The first two verses and verse 5 from today’s reading were read for Trinity Sunday last year. Today we add three verses and apply them to Lent. Although the message is the same the different context allows them to better illuminate a different truth. As is often said the best interpreter of scripture is scripture.

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith,
we have peace (erene) with God
through our Lord Jesus Christ

(Ro 5:1)

We begin with “Therefore” and can be relatively certain that a conclusion follows. In this case Paul has developed the concept of justification for four chapters and in chapter five which we read today he will tell us the benefits of being justified. Briefly and superficially justified means that a person has a relationship with God. The Greek word from which it derives, dikaiosunē, means righteousness. We are made righteous by the death and resurrection of Jesus. As he will remind us in verse 6, we cannot create a positive relationship with Jesus by ourselves he must “save us”.

The first benefit that we receive is “peace”. Paul uses the standard Greek word for peace (eirne) but he is always a Jew and we should see the Hebrew shalom behind it. Shalom means living in harmony with God, with our fellow humans, and with nature. This is also the New Testament understanding. It is found in John as the Peace the world cannot give, (John 14:24). It also has essentially the same meaning as the Kingdom in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke.) Peace is not something we have, it is someplace we live. We live in the kingdom. It is already here but not yet fully established. Thus, as Paul is acutely aware, the benefits of being justified are already here and with the Spirit can grow in our lives but will not be completely fulfilled in this world.

Through whom we have gained access (by faith)
to this grace in which we stand,
and we boast in hope of the glory of God.

(Ro 5:2)

The other benefits are grace and glory. Paul however first notes that we can receive them because we have access to God. The image here is of an ancient court. The king must give the subject permission to be in the same room with him. We did not have access to God previously. This does not mean that people were not good. Indeed, we have the prophets and other great people both Jewish and non-Jewish. But no one is good enough to live the life of the kingdom without faith in Jesus. We translate many things as faith, and we need to specify what we mean. In this case the word used is pistis and it may be best interpreted as trust. It is more than an intellectual assent but the recognition that Jesus has risen from the dead for our sins and that we prove that we believe by acting accordingly. In short, basing what we do each day on our trust that Jesus is alive and with us. Jesus’s death and resurrection give us access to God, but we can walk up to him only if our lives proclaim it.

Grace here has an aspect of kindness. Through his kindness God has invited us to be with him. This gives us the opportunity to hope for glory.

Like the Gospel writers Paul uses the word doxa which we translate as glory. As with faith it is a word which can be translated in many related ways. We have usually seen it as its original sense of “weight” a physical manifestation of the presence of God. Here it is best understood as “Image”. As Genesis reminds us humans were made in the image and likeness of God (Gen 1:26–28).

Paul reminds us that we are not yet fully the image of God several times in Romans. A famous example:

For there is no distinction since all have sinned
and fall short of the glory of God;

(Ro 3:22–24)

We hope for glory because we have begun the journey but are not yet there. Paul however reminds us again that it is only through Jesus.

The reading from Chapter 5 of Romans for Trinity Sunday included the verses 3 and 4 which reminded us that of Jesus’ favor alone could we boast. This week we skip that and get to the main story and are told about the nature of hope.

And hope does not disappoint,
because the love (agape) of God has been poured out
into our hearts through the holy Spirit
that has been given to us

(Ro 5:5)

Hope is a key concept of the Old Testament:

To you [my God] they cried out and were saved,
on you they placed their hope
and were not put to shame

(Ps 22:6 LXX)

God’s love will never fail never or disappoint because it is not outside of us but in our hearts. We did not put it there the Holy Spirit did. Also, the Greeks has several words for love. There is philia the affection between friends, eros, the passion of lovers but Paul uses: agape which is the totally selfless love of God. This is the love that asks for nothing in return, it simply wills the good of the other.

God pouring his love in our hearts is a constant theme of the Old Testament prophets. Isaiah, for instance writes:

For I will pour water on the thirsty land,
and streams on the dry ground;
I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,
and my blessing on your offspring

(Is 44:3)

It is not only a gift but an overwhelming one. It fills us and makes us whole despite our weakness and unworthiness.

For Christ, while we were still helpless,
yet died at the appointed time for the ungodly.

(Ro 5:6)

The Father “appointed” the time to send Jesus not despite sin but because of it. Then as now people were ungodly and because of that were helpless and weak.

In the ancient world, moral weakness disqualified a person from being even acknowledged by the morally upright. Their “weakness” was considered an infection from which the great and the good should flee.

The Latin poet Horace wrote:

I hate and cast aside the common masses (odi profanum vulgus et arceo)

But we also find in the Psalms:

I shun the devious of heart;
the wicked I do not tolerate

(Ps 101:4)

Not exactly the same idea but far from Jesus’ treatment of the woman at the well in this week’s gospel or Pope Francis’ appeal to accompaniment.

By his treatment of those who were not worthy of him, Jesus would have himself become unworthy of acceptance by the morally upright among both Jews and Gentiles.

Indeed, only with difficulty does one die for a just person,
though perhaps for a good person
one might even find courage to die.

(Ro 5:7)

Sacrificing oneself for another is never welcomed. Yet we see soldiers do so to protect their fellow soldiers and their country and mothers for their children. This is understandable. But who among us would give his or her life for a criminal? In the usual understanding of courage, the worthiness of the deed is contingent on its object. We applaud the soldier and the mother as courageous, a person who surrenders his life for a criminal we would find at best foolish. Yet this is what Jesus did for us.

But God proves his love for us
in that while we were still sinners
Christ died for us.

(Ro 5:8)

This truly is the love of agape, pure self-sacrifice. We cannot understand it, but we can thank Jesus for showing it.

This love comes before everything else and is the love that created the universe. Loves comes before the Fall and would have been present even if we did not sin.

Theologians have written on this but so did C.S. Lewis with his science fiction novel Perelandra (note connection to local food store). He questions what would happen if our first parents did not sin. There is also a humorous side, and as the joke below shows.

Yet this is quite serious. Paul understands that God loves us more than we love him or even ourselves. The preface of today’s Mass so beautiful says:

For when he asked the Samaritan woman for water to drink,
he had already created the gift of faith within her
and so ardently did he thirst for her faith,
that he kindled in her the fire of divine love

God will always love us more, but we can love him too.