The Gospel readings for the third Sunday of Lent challenge us to rethink what it means to be “holy.”
In what country are people regularly patted down and searched, often multiple times? Where citizens spend hours waiting in long lines to get their basic needs met? Where they risk being separated from items they legitimately own at any time?
Where the crowds in the city centers pit neighbor against neighbor in competition for limited resources? Where the majority are left hungry while a few elites are treated to fine meals and showered with luxuries?
Every country. What I just described is the territory better known as Air Travel.
The Front of the Plane
Of all the indignities we experience when we fly, the one that really gets my goat is that curtain that separates the lucky few in first class from me and my kind in coach. To be honest, I must admit that if a kind flight attendant gave me a free seat up front with the Rockefellers, I’d take it in a second. The moral indignation I feel towards the airline separation of classes would likely crumble up against an opportunity to stretch my legs, eat real food, and sip complimentary Chardonnay.
Also, I must acknowledge that I get the market-based logic of the system. If I owned an airline, I imagine I would offer the pecan-encrusted sea bass at a premium to those who could pay for it and reserve the salt-encrusted pretzels for all the rest.
The Good Guys
The gospel readings for the third Sunday in Lent challenge the Air Travel Caste System approach to judging the haves and the have-nots. During liturgical Cycle A, which we’re in now, the story from John’s gospel is quite a bit different. In this one, Jesus talks with a Samaritan woman at the well. From the get-go, Jesus is already ruffling feathers. First, he is speaking to a woman in public. A woman!
But not just any woman, a woman from Samaria. The Jews had nothing to do with Samaritans and vice-versa. And if that’s not enough, Jesus knows that she has had five husbands and is now “living in sin” with the presumptive number six. Strike three! They have a dialogue rich in figurative language about drinking water from the well.
The encounter transforms her so profoundly that she “left her water jar and went into the town and said to the people, ‘Come see a man who told me everything I have done. Could he possibly be the Messiah”? (4:28-29). Metaphorically speaking, a kind flight attendant bumps her up to first class with its warm towels, leg room, and champagne.
During Cycle B for the third Sunday in Lent, John’s gospel reading tells the story of Jesus angrily driving the moneychangers out of the Temple. The temptation is to think of these folks as evil extortionists who somehow overtook the good people of the Temple for the purpose of economic sacrilege.
No, they WERE the good people of the Temple. They wouldn’t have spot to sell their wares or exchange their currency if they weren’t! In this story, it’s the members of the Temple, the ones who attend services every week and honor all purity codes, that get sent to the back row of coach, right next to the bathroom.
During Cycle C, the gospel reading from Luke has Jesus reference the Galileans who faced great suffering. He says not once but twice, “I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!” While I don’t love the apocalyptic tone of the passage, I do appreciate its meaning.
In the words of my mother when angry at my childish mischief, “Straighten up and fly right!” (No airline pun intended.) But what does it mean to “fly right? The word “repent” conjures up images of shame and guilt over wrongdoing. I understand it as letting go of a worldview that no longer works in favor of one that’s transformational. Repentance means learning to look at the world differently, which changes everything.
I think the third Sunday of Lent challenges us to rethink what it means to be good or holy. It asks us to let go of the usual categories we put people and circumstances in so that we can see things differently. It calls us to recognize that the Air Travel Caste System has no place in our daily travels through life.