Fifth Sunday of Lent 2010

FIFTH SUNDAY of  LENT – YEAR C

21st March 2010

Isaiah 43.16-21
Philippians 3.8-14
John 8.1-11

Recently one of the newspapers showed a photo of a young woman being buried up to her neck in the earth.  She had been caught committing adultery and was about to be stoned to death for it. What a horrific way to die. As in the gospel there was no sign of the man. The gospel scene could have ended up in a very ugly manner. If Jesus had gone along with the script of the Scribes and Pharisees the woman would have died a horrible death. Who would have benefited from that? Instead, thanks to the understanding and compassion of Jesus, she was able to put the past behind her and make a new start.

Today’s gospel is primarily about who God is and how he treats us. Jesus gives the woman caught in adultery another chance. Instead of allowing her to go to her death, Jesus gives her life. Jesus is clearly telling us who God is and how he acts towards each one of us. God is a life-giving God, not a death-giving One. What Jesus is saying is ‘If I look on you with God’s pure gaze of love, with God’s forgiving attitude then you are totally and freely loved and forgiven’. It is God who decides all this. We cannot make God’s love and forgiveness depend on our worthiness or goodness.  Unfortunately it is not our human experience.  Don’t we often want to exact revenge or punish those who hurt or wrong us?  Not so God – it is so far from the God Jesus is witnessing to. That does not mean if God loves me like that I can sin merrily.  In fact it is the very opposite – realising how very much God loves me so unconditionally I will do my best to please him in doing likewise to others. We should pray often for this gift. 

The first reading from Isaiah briefly recalls Israel’s past and tells them that ‘God is doing a new deed’. Our God is not a God who keeps reminding us of our past sins.  His focus is much more on what he can still accomplish in our lives from now on no matter what our past has been. God is the God of the second chance or however many chances we need.

In today’s gospel Jesus offers a new way of looking at life.  We notice that Jesus did not ask the woman to look back, to publicly account for her sins. He merely asks that she go on with her life and not sin again.  With Jesus what is past is past.  Others may condemn us but God never does.

This is what St. Paul the onetime Pharisee and a radical upholder of the Law discovered.  Because of his own experience of God’s passionate, forgiving love for him he can now say as we heard in today’s second reading – ‘I believe that nothing will happen that will outweigh the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord’.

This was the experience of the woman caught in adultery. In meeting Jesus she heard; ‘Has no one condemned you, neither will I condemn you. Go away and don’t sin anymore’.  This is perhaps the greatest thing that ever happened to the woman – the experience of being accepted, of being heard, of being treated as a human person.  At this stage of the story Jesus is kneeling down and looking up at the woman.  The Pharisees who had departed full of shame had merely looked down on her with scorn and rejection.  How humiliated and fearful she must have felt before Jesus enters the situation.

Yet Jesus did not treat her sin lightly.  He didn’t deny she had sinned.  Sin carries its own punishment. It is not God who punishes us but sin.  He knew that if she did the same again he would not necessarily be around and she would indeed be stoned to death.

The Scribes and the Pharisees exposed the woman to the most humiliating kind of shaming – a public shaming. People have been known to commit suicide rather than face a public shaming.  They didn’t show the slightest concern for the woman as a person.  She was someone they thought they could use to entrap Jesus.  She was to them what bait is to a fisherman.

Jesus could see the double standards they applied to themselves.  He knew that they were sinners like everyone else, yet they were able very conveniently to forgive and be easy on themselves whilst condemning the woman. In fact, the only person in the scene who had a right to condemn her, Jesus, had not the slightest interest in doing so.  And when all had left Jesus is left alone with the woman.  As St. Augustine puts it, only misery and mercy remained.

Yet in regard to the Scribes and Pharisees there is something marvellously gentle and subtle in the way Jesus dealt with them. He had outwitted them but he did not condemn or humiliate them. He exposed them, but did not spell it out in public.  He didn’t even judge them.  Rather he invited them to judge themselves. Instead he simply tells them that those without sin should cast the first stone.  Immediately the accusers become excusers.

Jesus shows how God deals with sinful people, that is, with each of us. He is a God of incredible, unconditional compassion and loving forgiveness. He changes our view of God.  At the same time he asks us to change our view of sinful people.  Each one of us, no matter what our sins are, has the capacity to change. Our sins are not the sum total of who we are.  They are parts of who we are, for sure.  But God can do a new deed for and in all of us if we allow him.  We heard in the First Reading from Isaiah the words: ‘See I am doing a new deed’.  This is indeed very consoling for us.  It is God who will do in us it if we allow him.

But God from whom we receive total and absolute forgiveness expects us to do likewise for others.  Is that true of us?

“Lord Jesus, thank you for not condemning us. We do not deny that we sin and yet you constantly give us new opportunities to change. Help us to be ever ready to excuse others for their failings as you do ours. Amen”.

Fr. Jim Kirstein, SMA.March 15th, 2010