Franciscan Spirit Blog

Lent with Richard Rohr: Cosmic Courtroom Scenes

Thursday of the Fourth Week of Lent | Readings: Exodus 32:7-14; John 5:31-47


In both readings today we have “Reality” put on trial, and in both cases Reality/God wins. In the book of Exodus, just after the golden calf experience, Yahweh is calling the people of Israel to account, and Moses becomes their lawyer and defense attorney. He reminds God of their past history together and tells God in effect to be true to himself and to his promises. Yahweh relents, after having started this tirade telling Moses these are “your people”! Sounds like an exasperated parent in conflict with the kids!

The wonderful thing about such Jewish Scriptures as these is that it presents God as relational, able to be influenced and changed, a God of give and take, which becomes the “personal” notion of God that we have in Judeo-Christianity to this day. It lays the ground for love, freedom, and actual relationship, instead of just fate, unchangeable law, and inevitability. The secret in biblical prayer is always to expect God to be true to God’s own name, identity, and patterns of goodness in the past, and not just begging God to conform to my immediate ego needs. Prayer, more than anything, seeks, creates, and preserves relationship—which is always both giving and receiving. Here it is mostly receiving.

Then in a somewhat labored but significant Gospel, John has Jesus on trial before the religious authorities, largely as his own defense attorney. He has no Moses to do this job, but he first appeals to John the Baptist as his star witness. Then he appeals to “the works that I do” as fitting evidence, then to God the Father “whom they cannot hear,” next to their own Scriptures “in which you assume you have eternal life,” and finally Jesus says that Moses will be their accuser because they do not believe him either. All in all, it is a full rout against all dishonest religion. He defeats them by their own criteria, yet it still does not work.

His explanation of their blindness is found between verses 41–44 where he points out that they are caught up in what French philosopher René Girard would call “mimetic rivalry,” the human world of comparison, competition, and imitation. Inside that blind and incestuous loop of mutual approval and back scratching, God can never be found. Great spiritual truth must always be known in a “vertical” way, as it were, and not through the horizontal knowings of the always lazy and fearful collective, usually still in the first half of life awareness: “What everybody says and thinks” is its usual and standard form. Here mass consciousness and group pressure substitute for any real or necessary encounter with the Holy.

Jesus sets himself free in this courtroom scene by resetting the bar and revealing their unwillingness to make honest use of their own witnesses and their own internal evidence. He clearly wins, but there is no one there to congratulate him. He is a second half of life man in a first half of life religious courtrooms.


“As for human approval, this means nothing to me. . . . How can people like you believe, when you look to one another for validation, and are not concerned with the validation that comes from the one God?” —John 5:41, 44


“Just God, if you are the judge, then I will happily accept your witnesses, your evidence, and your conclusions. Because I always know that your only criterion is to be true to yourself, and you are infinite Love and Mercy.”

¡Haga clic aquí para ver la traducción en español!

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