Sunday, March 17, 2013

Scripture Readings: The Fifth Sunday of Lent

First Reading

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.

Second Reading

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.


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.”


I’m sure someone more knowledgeable of ancient Middle Eastern cultures would be able to explain why Isaiah cites two such seemingly random creatures as jackals and ostriches, but I confess, I couldn’t help mentally adding other random creatures (koala bears, flamingoes…).
            Anyway, the story here is, of course, the woman caught in adultery. This, together with last week’s prodigal son, is one of the key examples of Jesus’ mercy in the Gospel.
            The interesting thing, though, is that Jesus Himself takes very little direct action here. He doesn’t denounce the elders for their mercilessness, or ask pointedly how exactly they managed to catch her in the very act of adultery, and what that might say about them.
            In fact, at first He doesn’t really do anything. His initial answer is to not answer at all (at least, not directly; we’re never told what exactly He’s writing in the dust).
Which, in itself, means He’s doing something rather remarkable. There is sometimes great power in doing nothing. By doing nothing here, Jesus accomplishes a number of things: He’s allowing the high emotions and excitement of the elders to burn out a little (since it’s impossible to keep a high emotional state for very long), which will make them more accessible to the answer He’s going to give them. He’s assuming control of the conversation and not letting the elders dictate the terms of their encounter, or force Him to play their little games.
            In short, by not answering right away, Jesus takes charge of the situation and sends the message that it will be settled on His terms, not those of the elders.
            Which brings us to His famous answer, which is something of a Socratic-non-answer. Rather than out-and-out telling them that they too are sinners and should not be presuming to exercise judgment over this woman, He invites them to discover this for themselves. To their credit, the elders immediately realize that they could not meet the criteria He sets and depart, leaving Him alone with the woman.
            The woman, who no doubt has been scared out of her mind this whole time, waits with Him. Presumably, she already realizes that here is one who genuinely does have the authority to condemn her, or perhaps she simply is too stunned to believe what just happened.
            Jesus’ brief dialogue with her brings back something which some might (and, let’s be honest, frequently do) prefer to forget: the reality of God’s justice as well as His mercy. Jesus first asks her whether anyone has been willing to condemn her. When she says no, Jesus sends her on her way with not only forgiveness, but also a warning: “from now on, do not sin anymore.”
            See, Jesus wasn’t saying that the woman had no sin when He saved her. He was saying that the elders did not have the right to condemn her, as they too were sinners, and that she should be given a chance to repent. Now He tells her directly that her way of life is unacceptable and, now that she has seen the mercy of God, He expects her to change.
             That’s the trouble with us most of the time; we expect to be able to do what we like and that God, since He is so merciful, will simply forgive us. But, as this story shows, that isn’t how it works. God forgives us, but He also expects us to acknowledge the wrongness of what we’ve done and to avoid sinning in the future. He saves us so that we can be united with Him, not so that we can continue to ignore or reject Him in peace. If we won’t have His mercy, and with it the willingness to abandon our sins and follow Him, then we will have His justice. Those are our only two options. He will always offer His mercy, but it’s up to us to accept it.

Vive Christus Rex!

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