17 March 2013 – St Patrick’s Day
Once I met a woman who told me that the biggest crisis in her married life was the time she found out that her husband was unfaithful to her. He was having an affair with another woman for over a year. She was shattered and consulted a close friend who asked her one question: “Do you really love your husband still in spite of this?” When she answered that she did, her friend said she should confront her husband and tell him she was prepared to accept him back. She did and now many years later the marriage is working well. But at that time it wasn’t easy and many would not have been surprised if she had refused to forgive her husband and not had given him another chance.
She reminds me of today’s gospel that is primarily about who God is and how he treats us. Like the woman in the story Jesus gives the woman caught in adultery another chance. Instead of sending her to her death, Jesus sends her to life. Jesus is telling us as clearly as he can who God is and how he acts towards each one of us. We feel that if we do good we will earn or merit a heavenly reward and if we consistently do bad God will punish us. What Jesus is saying is ‘If I look on you with God’s 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. What a misunderstanding of how God relates to us. Unfortunately it is not our human experience. 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. Of course 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 try to respond by trying to please him. I will pray to be able to do the same to others as God does to me. Just as the woman in the story who forgave her husband. He later told a friend that having been forgiven by his wife he would spend the rest of his life responding to her marvelous love for him even though he didn’t deserve this because of his actions.
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. It is as if he is saying to us – ‘you haven’t seen anything yet!’
So a group of Scribes and Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman who had been caught committing adultery. It is interesting to note that the man had not been brought along and obviously Jesus immediately sees the double standards here. Jesus’ gesture is one of forgiveness of the sinner but also a rejection of the cruelty toward the woman and the double standards towards women and men. The woman because she is a woman sins seriously, while the man’s sin is seen as less serious. Jesus sees the inconsistency and tenderly tells the woman who has sinned to ‘go away and don’t sin any more’. The other double standard and inconsistency that Jesus is condemning is also our own constant practice. Don’t we often criticise others whilst ignoring our own sinful behavior; sometimes the very thing we condemn in others? Jesus here rejects the practice of all of us who say one thing and do another. If we are very honest with ourselves we all know that inside each of us are many thoughts and desires that we would not want others to know about. We don’t necessarily put them all into practice but we could. And do we not in some areas of our lives?
When the Scribes and Pharisees persisted with their question to Jesus trying to trap him, he refuses to get involved in a debate about what the law allowed or not. He knew what the Law of Moses taught just as they did, so he refused to play word games with them. Instead he simply tells them that those without sin should cast the first stone. Immediately the accusers become excusers. They were very quick to accuse the woman as well as humiliating her, but now they are equally as quick to excuse themselves when they hear the words of Jesus. 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.
Jesus does something for the woman that goes beyond the law.
The law condemns, Jesus forgives.
He shows how God deals with sinful people, that is, with each of us. 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.
“Lord Jesus, thank you for showing to us again in this gospel that you have no interest in condemning us. You do not deny that we sin but you constantly give us new opportunities to change. Help us by your Holy Spirit to be ever ready to excuse others for their failings as you do ours. Amen”.
Fr. Jim Kirstein, SMA.