Sunday Sermon for March 22, 2015, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year B

Readings: Jer 31:31-34; Heb 5:7-9; Jn 12:20-33
In the first reading today we hear a very important statement which was made by God regarding the Israelites. In response to the disobedience of the people, God says that He had to show Himself their Master. What is important about this is that God does not want us to be in a Master/slave kind of relationship. He obviously did not see Himself that way in His relationship with the people of the Old Testament; even more can we say that this is not the relationship He wants to have with us.

In the second reading St. Paul says of Jesus: “Son though He was, He learned obedience through suffering.” It is clear from this passage that suffering is not a punishment that God inflicts upon us due to our disobedience. In fact, when we look at the Old Testament, we find a pattern of how God deals with the disobedience of the people. Each time there is a violation God puts more laws on the people. They show themselves to be unable to live in a relationship of love, so God has to show Himself their Master by restricting them through laws.

In the New Testament Jesus gives us only one commandment: love. This is not what is typical for a master/slave relationship. It is the norm for a Father/child relationship. Obedience, then, is not a matter of merely following the rules; rather, it is a matter of love. If we see God as Master, then we might follow His laws just because we do not want to get punished. If we see God as our Father, we will follow His laws because we love Him. In either situation we are following the laws, but in the first the laws are experienced as constrictive whereas in the latter they are experienced as freedom.

St. Paul says the Jesus became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey Him. Since He gave us only the law of love, this is what we must obey. We know that this does not mean to have happy feelings about the Lord, rather, it means to act selflessly toward Him. In the Gospel our Lord says that whoever serves Him must follow Him so that where He is, there also will His servant be.

One might object to this saying that we had just determined that God did not want us to be in a Master/slave relationship. He does not. Then, one might ask, why does Jesus speak of us as servants? The reason is because there are those who choose, as a matter of love, to serve. Because it is about charity, they are not compelled or forced in any way to serve; they choose it freely. This is what it means for the grain of wheat to fall to the ground and die. To love is to die to self; it is the greatest thing we can do, but it is also the most difficult. In other words, it is a great suffering.

This is where we can see that the suffering of our Lord, and our own by extension, is not about punishment. God allows the suffering in order to purify and to perfect us. As human beings we tend toward selfishness. As we grow in any virtue, so with love, it becomes more and more difficult as we grow. When things get difficult we naturally pull into ourselves. Love requires that we go out from ourselves. This is why the suffering of the Saints becomes so intense. They have to fight the temptation to be selfish and continue to love even when it is the most difficult.

Now, if we choose to love, Jesus told us that we would be wherever He is. At the end of the Gospel reading today He says that when He is lifted up from the earth, He would draw us to Himself. His work on the Cross is the greatest and most perfect act of love humanity has ever experienced. Our choice to love God and neighbor will lead us, as it led Jesus, to the Cross. There is no other way, but if we truly love Him, there is also nowhere else we would rather be.

In the first reading God says that He is going to make a new covenant with His people, but, He says, it will not be like the old covenant. Instead, He says, He will write His law in the hearts of the people. In other words, it will be a covenant of love. This is exactly what we have been talking about. That covenant was inaugurated on the Cross; only on the Cross will it be ratified. It is the love of Jesus on the Cross that draws us; it is our love that will unite us with Him on the Cross.

Fr. Altier’s column appears regularly in The Wanderer, a national Catholic weekly published in St. Paul, Minn. For information about subscribing to The Wanderer, please visit