Lent Reflection – Week 2

Enlarge the Space of Your Tent

Making Room for the Sinner

As they travelled through the wilderness, on the way to the promised land, the Hebrew people were gradually being formed as the “People of God”. One of the most important moments in this journey is when God gave Moses the Commandments. These commandments were not to be seen as a burden, but as wisdom for their lives, so that they could be Holy just as God is Holy, (Lev. 19). According to the Book of Exodus, even as Moses came down the mountain, the people had broken faith and were offering sacrifices to a Golden idol. We all know the story.

Moses had to constantly stand in the presence of God and plead on behalf of His people when they sinned. The question for the Hebrews, which is not entirely foreign to us thousands of years later, was: “how do we deal with the reality of sin in a community that is meant to be Holy?” The Book of Leviticus describes how Aaron the priest was told to offer a “sin offering” on behalf of the people. Two goats were brought to the sanctuary. One was offered in sacrifice to God. Then Aaron would place his hands on the other goat “and confess over it all the wickedness of the people” (Lev. 16). This is the origin of the Jewish Feast of Atonement (or Yom Kippur). The unfortunate goat was led out into the wilderness outside the camp. This is the origin of the term “scapegoat”, the creature who literally took away the sins of the whole community. The significant thing is that the goat was driven out, so that the people, in spite of their sinfulness, could remain in the camp. It was not about denying the reality of sin, but about “enlarging the space of the tent”.

In our contemporary society, there is a tendency to deny the reality of sin. We are probably less inclined to seek forgiveness and we find atonement difficult. At the same time, we are good at “driving people out” who don’t measure up to our expectations. Perhaps we forget that the original idea of the scapegoat was to find a way to keep people in the tent, in spite of their failures.

Jesus was often criticised because he sat at table with sinners. He never denied the reality of sin but we might remember his words to the woman who was dragged in front of him by the mob: “Woman, has nobody condemned you. Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more”. (Jn. 8:10)

One of my favourite movies about the life of Jesus is “Jesus of Nazareth”, directed by Franco Zeffirelli. I feel a particular connection with it because, in the course of some part-time work I had as a student in Rome, I got to translate one of the scenes for the movie into English. But that’s another story.

In the movie, Zeffirelli uses Jesus’ visit to the home of the tax-collector as an occasion to tell the story of the Prodigal Son, in a rather unique way:

  • While at table, Jesus begins to speak about the Son who went away and who then repented of his self-centred behaviour and came home, and how he was reconciled with his father. As Jesus tells it, it is obvious to everyone that he is telling this story for and about Levi, and they all wonder how Levi will react.
  • Then, just as Levi is about to respond, there is a disturbance and the disciples, led by Peter, appear at the door, asking Jesus why he is eating in the house of a sinner. They come no further than the door.
  • It is at this point that Jesus begins the second part of the parable, about the older brother who refuses to come in from the field, and as he does, it is clear to everyone that he is speaking to Peter and appealing to him to come in and be reconciled with Levi. Peter hesitates, but he comes in, and they begin to celebrate.

When I pray the parable of the Prodigal Son, I often find myself thinking that, while the Father was the one who was actually enlarging the space of his tent, he was teaching both his sons to do the same. Lent is a time for conversion, for turning back to God with your whole heart. But part of that conversion is the mercy that we extend to others, in a world which is not so merciful.

This week, perhaps, we might contemplate the words of Pope Francis when, in 2015, he announced the Jubilee of Mercy. “Jesus affirms that mercy is not only an action of the Father, it becomes a criterion for ascertaining who his true children are. In short, we are called to show mercy because mercy has first been shown to us. Pardoning offences becomes the clearest expression of merciful love, and for us Christians it is an imperative from which we cannot excuse ourselves. At times how hard it seems to forgive! And yet pardon is the instrument placed into our fragile hands to attain serenity of heart. To let go of anger, wrath, violence, and revenge are necessary conditions to living joyfully….Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Misericordiae Vultus, #9).

Jesus is our scapegoat. He is the one who took upon himself the sins of the world, so that we might all be able to live “within the camp”. He has given us a powerful Sacrament, which is much more than a ritual of Atonement. I invite you to celebrate that Sacrament of Reconciliation in the coming weeks. I know that the priests will make themselves available and make you welcome. Then, once you have received God’s mercy, remember the motto of the Jubilee of Mercy “Misericordes Sicut Pater” (Merciful Like the Father). Look around you and see how you, yourself, can enlarge the space of the tent for someone else.