Mar 12, 2016

5th Sunday of Lent: Without sin?

"What do you say?"

Isa 43:16-21
Phil 3: 8-14
Jn 8: 1-11

Words spoken by Pope St. John XXIII 54 years ago at the opening of the Second Vatican Council are heard echoed by our present Pope Francis who has reclaimed them and expanded far and wide the spirit of Christ for all which should always be found in this faith community of the Church.  St. John XXIII, at the opening of the Council, spoke of: “the medicine of mercy,” and that the Church should “Show herself a loving mother to all: patient, kind, moved by compassion and goodness.” It is also the spirit of our Lenten season and in particular of last Sunday’s Gospel (Lk 15: 11-232) and this Sunday as well.  (Jn 8: 1-11). Here, the “medicine of mercy” is boldly applied and we should see ourselves as receiving the same, expressed in the mission of the Church.

In our Gospel (Jn 8: 1-11) for this Sunday  before we begin our annual Holy Week drama next toward the glory of the Easter season, we find Jesus confronted with the anger of accusers.  Their anger is deliberate.  The Pharisees and the scribes are angry at the crowds being amassed by Jesus as teacher. They are the teachers! Now, in what appeared to be a violation of the marriage covenant through an act of adultery by a shamed woman they bring her before Jesus in humiliation. But their claim is somewhat suspicious:“Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery.” Really?  How was that done and where is the man she was involved with? Was someone hiding in the shadows as a decoy waiting for the very moment?  A creepy thought to say the least.

Or is this a set-up in which to trap Jesus?  It seems so: “They did this to test him so that they could have some charge to bring against him.” So, we may wonder if she was actually “caught in the act” or is this ploy; a false trumped up charge to see what Jesus would say in this apparent violation of the Mosaic Law, the seventh commandment which holds sacred the marriage bond? Either way, it seems suspect and the poor accused woman remains speechless before her charge true or false. Jesus alone stands in judgement.  The charge on the woman is that of a capital crime deserving of death! The crowd is all eyes and ears in anticipation.

Assumed to now be trapped by the Pharisees who view themselves watchdogs of religious purity, they await Jesus’ response with sinister motives. Is he backed into a corner? He says nothing at first but bends down to write on the ground. What was on the face of the woman?  Shame, fear, anger, a head bowed in silence?  We might picture all of the above.  What was on the face of Jesus?  It seems we can assume only mercy.

Better yet, what did he write on the ground?  Was it just idle scribble till the lynch mob settles down?  The Ten Commandments? The seventh one of which this woman was accused of breaking? Or would it be a list of sins? We might want to imagine the sins of the accusers, as has been one theory. 
Regardless, Jesus says nothing.  He doesn’t point a finger except to write. He doesn’t bring shame, only the moment for self-reflection. Remember the wayward son (Lk 15) who eventually “came to his senses” then returned to his father? Yet, the arrow is now pointed not to the woman but to her smug accusers.

Finally, Jesus gets right to the core of the issue: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And again begins to write.  You can hear the stones begin to drop and feet shuffle away in the dust with the grumbling of disgust.  

Having turned the shame of truth on the accusers and away from the woman, Jesus stands alone to face her.  He only is without sin but has empty hands. All have left without a stone thrown and God in Christ reaches out in mercy: “Has no one condemned you? She replied, ‘No one, sir.’ Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”

While we don’t know the exact identity of this woman, though a long tradition says it may be Mary Magdalene, it is more helpful to see ourselves in her.  She is now free not to continue in further sin but to now live a new life in Christ.  To experience such overwhelming unexpected mercy invites us all to conversion.  In the face of Christ we find such dignified and respectful love we can never go back to what we were. 

God hates the sin, for certain, but loves the sinner and we must the same. This is not cheap grace but grace bought at the price of Jesus’ own life now extended to all who repent.  

Our second reading from Philippians so beautifully expresses this 
as Paul reflects on his own conversion: "For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him."Mercy was shown to Paul along that road to Damascus as he was intent on the destruction of the Christian faith.  But, God had another plan and powerfully turned the life of Paul 180 degrees in the other direction. 

Last week showed us the selfish and wasteful son who shamed his loving father but who was later forgiven and shown mercy by that same father.  This week it is a woman whose moral compass had gone far astray. With three such extreme examples, how could we not see ourselves invited to the same? 

The message is that God is more concerned about forgiveness and recovery than he is about our punishment.  But, there is always a caveat for all of us.  That obligation we have to not go back.  To the woman and to us Jesus says: “. . . from now on do not sin anymore.”

What clearer message could be given as to the way we must walk?  God’s ever abundant mercy calls us to walk the higher road and to leave behind all that is not of him.  When we fall back, we have the mercy of God to trust in as expressed in the sacrament of reconciliation, in the holy Eucharist, in the compassion of others who reach out to us, in the support and prayers of our community of faith. 

Bless, + O Lord, your people,
who long for the gift of your mercy,
and grant that what, at your prompting, they desire
they may receive by your generous gift.
Through Christ our Lord. 

(Prayer over the People)