“Planes, Trains and Automobiles” was a very funny movie released in 1987. It starred Steve Martin and John Candy as two men brought together by circumstance. At one point in the movie John Candy was driving on a divided highway, attempting to get himself and Steve Martin home in time for Thanksgiving dinner with their respective families. A driver in another car began shouting at them, “You’re going the wrong way!” John Candy disregarded the warnings of the other driver, until he nearly collided with oncoming traffic.
When I saw this movie for the first time I laughed quite a bit at the comedic escapades of two mismatched companions whose personality conflicts made their difficult situation worse. The wrong-way driving on a highway was only one of the many entertaining mishaps endured by the two characters. That scene, in which the two were driving headlong into heavy traffic, used to be very funny to me. The numerous instances of serious injury, and even death, caused by drivers traveling in the wrong direction on the local highways in recent months has made that movie scene much less entertaining. The local collisions, injuries and deaths are indicators of the serious consequences of driving in the wrong direction.
The Scriptures in this Sunday’s Liturgy of the Word also speak about going in the wrong direction, but in a sense different from the tragedies on our local highways. The first reading, from Second Chronicles, lists the many spiritual failings of the political leaders, religious leaders and former citizens of Judea. The direction their lives took as a result of their faithlessness led to their exile in Babylon and the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple. (2 Chronicles 36:19-20) The Gospel Reading makes a similar statement, but in more generalized terms. John’s Gospel contrasts those who make a conscious effort to follow God’s will with those who reject God’s will as manifested in the life and death of Jesus. (John 3:18)
These Scripture readings are examples of a perspective on life called the “Two Ways.” The notion of the “Two Ways” appears in both the Christian Scriptures and in post-apostolic Christian literature, but it predates Christianity. Jewish spirituality in the two centuries before the birth of Jesus sometimes used this schema to make sense of the life of faith. The “Rule of the Community” found in the Qumran library, for example, speaks about “two spirits” which can direct a person’s life in opposing directions.
More pertinent for Christians is the fact that John the Baptist appears to have used this way of describing the life of faith. (Matthew 21:32) It is probable that Jesus’ use of similar expressions was the result of the Baptist’s influence. (Matthew 7:13-14) The idea of the “Two Ways” is an ancient one that still has value today. In the terminology of John’s Gospel, we live either in the light or in the dark; there is no middle ground. (John 3:20-21)
I don’t know whether it should be judged funny or tragic that the distinction between a life oriented toward God and a life directed away from God is so poorly understood by so many. This same passage of John’s Gospel is the source of a quote that has become as closely associated with sports stadiums as are overpriced fast food and over-sized scoreboards. It seems that no team sport can be played without the presence of at least one placard advertising John 3:16.
I am unconvinced that the zealots who carry those signs have an adequate grasp of the meaning of that Gospel verse. In John’s Gospel “the world” most often refers to those people who have consciously rejected faith in Jesus as Messiah. The meaning of John 3:16 is: “God’s faithfulness is so boundless that God sent the Son to die for the salvation of faithless people.” Rather than a pious sentiment about a very emotional deity, it is a statement about the stark contrast between God’s faithfulness and the sinfulness of human nature. When taken out of context the quote sounds very comforting. In its proper context, however, it is a stern warning. “This is God’s verdict about the world: that light has come, but people love darkness instead, because their deeds are evil.” (John 3:19)
In the Scriptures, those who choose to follow God’s will walk in the light; those who reject God’s will are caught in darkness. There are many paths in darkness, but only one that is in the light; the single path in light is the one that results from conscious and firm faith in Jesus.
By our nature we assume automatically that the direction we’ve given our lives is the right one by virtue of the fact that it seemed like a good idea at the time. We are by nature, however, trapped in our own subjectivity. It is helpful, from time to time, to look at objective evidence. Just like John Candy’s character in the movie “Planes, Trains and Automobiles,” it helps to have an objective observer that can warn us when we’re headed in the wrong direction.
In the case of our spiritual lives, the objective observer is the feedback we get from our decisions and actions. Today’s Gospel reading offers a very reliable evaluation of the relative virtue of choices and acts. The Gospel says, “everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed.” (John 3:20) This is a starkly simple way of discriminating whether or not we live in the light of Christ. The deeds we hide from others are deeds that live in the darkness of sin.
We’ve all had the experience of cheating on our Lenten penances or, at the very least, being tempted to cheat. That temptation to cheat is always something that we try to hide from sight; regardless of the gravity of the situation, no one wants to be caught cheating. Those minor temptations and failures that are part of Lent are perfect reflections of the whole of our lives: we seek darkness for those choices and acts that lead away from good and away from God. The darkness of sin is easily recognizable; it is duplicitous, dishonest, petty and pathetic. Sin hides; holiness lives freely in the light.
The fasting, prayer and almsgiving of Lent is an invitation to make our deeds measure up to our words and, by doing so, to live in the light. You might want to try this exercise during the coming week: pay close attention to those things you try to hide from others, the decisions and actions that live in the dark. This will require a great deal of honesty with yourself and a great deal of compassion for yourself. In one way or another, the things you hide from sight are saying, “You’re going the wrong way!” The only way to turn your life around, of course, is to come into the light. (John 3:21)