Sunday, March 21, 2010

Let The One Who Is Without Sin Be The First To Throw A Stone.

Fifth Sunday of Lent

Reading I
Isaiah 43:16-21
Thus says the LORD,
who opens a way in the sea
and a path in the mighty waters,
who leads out chariots and horsemen,
a powerful army,
till they lie prostrate together, never to rise,
snuffed out and quenched like a wick.
Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
see, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
In the desert I make a way,
in the wasteland, rivers.
Wild beasts honor me,
jackals and ostriches,
for I put water in the desert
and rivers in the wasteland
for my chosen people to drink,
the people whom I formed for myself,
that they might announce my praise.
+++    +++     +++     +++   
Psalm 126
The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.
When the LORD brought back the captives of Zion,
we were like men dreaming.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with rejoicing.
The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.
Then they said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us;
we are glad indeed.
The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.
Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like the torrents in the southern desert.
Those that sow in tears
shall reap rejoicing.
The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.
Although they go forth weeping,
carrying the seed to be sown,
They shall come back rejoicing,
carrying their sheaves.
The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.
+++    +++    +++    +++  
Reading II
Philippians 3:8-14
Brothers and sisters:
I consider everything as a loss
because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
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,
not having any righteousness of my own based on the law
but that which comes through faith in Christ,
the righteousness from God,
depending on faith to know him and the power of his resurrection
and the sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death,
if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
It is not that I have already taken hold of it
or have already attained perfect maturity,
but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it,
since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus.
Brothers and sisters, I for my part
do not consider myself to have taken possession.
Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind
but straining forward to what lies ahead,
I continue my pursuit toward the goal,
the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.
John 8:1-11
Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area,
and all the people started coming to him,
and he sat down and taught them.
Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman
who had been caught in adultery
and made her stand in the middle.
They said to him,
“Teacher, this woman was caught
in the very act of committing adultery.
Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.
So what do you say?”
They said this to test him,
so that they could have some charge to bring against him.
Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.
But when they continued asking him,
he straightened up and said to them,
“Let the one among you who is without sin
be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Again he bent down and wrote on the ground.
And in response, they went away one by one,
beginning with the elders.
So he was left alone with the woman before him.
Then Jesus straightened up and said to her,
“Woman, where are they?
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 any more.”

That is one way to express the theme of today’s Scriptures. The readings speak of how God is always compassionate to his people. No matter how often the Israelites ignore the word of God; no matter how many times they become “stiff-necked” and refuse to do his will, He persists in calling them back.

Throughout the New Testament we see God, in the person of Jesus, calling his sinful people to turn back to him, to trust in his message, to follow his way, the way of truth and of life. Jesus can be called the sacrament of God among us. A sacrament is a visible sign of the power of God through which we receive grace. When people see Jesus, they are seeing God (imperfectly, because they see the humanity of Jesus, not the fullness of his divine nature). When Jesus speaks and acts, it is not a mere human being like us, but God who is acting and speaking. So, in today’s Gospel, when we see Jesus with the sinful woman, we are seeing God.

There are two kinds of sinners in today’s Gospel. First, there is the woman caught in the act of adultery, a very serious matter. But it takes two, a man and a woman, to commit adultery, and there is no mention of the man. In the Jewish culture, and in other societies as well, where the purity of the family line is vital, because it is the woman who bears the child, the stigma of adultery and of the birth of an illegitimate child rests upon her alone. Moreover, if a married woman commits adultery, it may not be certain who the real father of the child she bears actually is. On the other hand, an adulterous man might produce an illegitimate child but, from this perspective, it is the problem of the woman and her family, not of him or his family.

In this story, the Pharisees and Scribes are also presented as sinful. Not, of course, in their own eyes, but in the eyes of Jesus and his Gospel, since they are totally lacking in the compassion that God exercises toward his children, and that he expects his followers to exercise as well: “Be merciful, as your Father in heaven is merciful.” The Scribes and Pharisees are proud and arrogant; they give themselves the prerogative to sit in judgment on others. They don’t have the slightest notion how to love or how to forgive – they only know how to keep the Law of Moses according to their own norms. But they are far from God: they do not obey the first and greatest of God’s laws: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your might; and you shall love your neighbor as God has loved you.

But, before we sit in judgment on them, we ought to sincerely ask ourselves whether we would have acted differently in this particular situation. How would we respond if it were our son, our daughter, our spouse – not to mention a stranger or a public figure – who was caught in an adulterous relationship?

The woman in this story is not an isolated sinner. She represents everyone who has ever committed a sin. She represents you and me. The Scribes and Pharisees, who are sinners also, also represent you and me. We sin in both ways: we hurt others by indulging our sinful desires; and we hurt others by setting ourselves up as superior to them.

If you had been there that day, what would you have done? Would you have condemned the guilty woman? Last week, how many people have we condemned in our thoughts or by our words? On the other hand, to how many have we extended a hand of love and compassion?

Now, let us look at Jesus in this gospel. First, Jesus does not deny the woman’s sin. She has sinned, and very seriously. Adultery involves an intimate sexual liaison between two people, at least one of whom is married to someone else. It is a serious breach of trust in the marriage relationship, a serious injustice to the innocent partner in the marriage. The seriousness of the offence is the injustice to one’s partner and the breach of trust; the sexual activities, while serious in themselves, are secondary. The story does not tell us whether or not this woman was married. What is clear, according to the judgment of the Pharisees and of Jesus, and by own her admission, is that she has sinned.

But there is another element of the story that made explicitly clear: This woman has been brought before Jesus as a pawn in a game – a game of entrapment. “In the Law, Moses ordered women like this one to be stoned to death. What do you have to say?” They hope to put the rabbi from Nazareth on a collision course with the sacred traditions that come from Moses, and to condemn him by the words of his mouth. If he agrees with the Law of Moses, he belies his own teaching and behavior toward sinners; if he rejects the Law of Moses, he can be denounced as not a man of God.

At first, Jesus ignores the question. He bends down and starts writing in the sand with his finger. There has been much speculation about what he may have been writing; but whatever he wrote Jesus’ purpose was to avoid walking into their obvious trap. When they persist, he says, “If there is one among you that has never sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Not one took up the challenge. One by one, starting with the oldest, they went away. Only Jesus and the woman are left. “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? Neither do I! Go on your way and sin no more.”

If God acted like the Pharisees, how often would I have been condemned? Yet, no matter how often I sin, or how seriously, God continues to call me to start over again, to change my ways of living my life and dealing with other people. Once? Twice? No, seventy times seven times! (Or, in another translation: seven hundred times seven times! ) In other words, all the time.

One commentator on today’s Mass writes: “The utter completeness of Christ’s forgiveness is nearly incredible. When he says, ‘Neither do I condemn you’, the past is dead, snuffed out like a wick, forgotten.” That is what is meant by “God has a poor memory”. He sees and knows only the person who is standing in front of him at this very moment. “No need to recall the past, no need to think about what has gone before”, says Isaiah in the first reading.

That is also the experience of Paul, once a zealous Pharisee, and persecutor of Christians. As a Pharisee, he thought he was a perfect person by keeping the letter of the  Law and hating those who did not. Now he knows that he is a good person because he has been filled with the love of Jesus. Now he hates no one. He loves, he forgives, and like God, he forgets.

We will find a great deal of happiness and peace in our lives if, on the one hand, we truly grasp the attitude of God toward the sinner, and, on the other hand, if we can make God’s attitude our own in our relationship with others.

1 comment:

Sarah in the tent said...

As I understand it, the purpose of stoning was to remove guilt from the community. But, under the Law, the community also had sin sacrifices and public penance as ways to seek God's forgiveness. Public penance was best led by the great and the good. Our Lord seems to have obliged the elders here to perform an act of public penance, instead of a stoning.

As each elder publicly walked away he was, however reluctantly, confessing his sin before Almighty God and his brothers and sisters. At the end of the process, it was as though all these sins in the wider community had been forgiven by God and what was left - the woman's own unmitigated sin - had been forgiven by the community. Jesus then gave his own absolution.

The incident shows how even our most imperfect forgiveness of others, in the depth of our own sin, can allow God's mercy to heal us and our communities - if we cooperate.