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Reflections for the V Sunday of Lent

Fr. Antony Kadavil reflects and comments on the readings at Mass for the fifth Sunday in Lent. He says that the readings challenge us to be merciful towards those around us and to live as forgiven people.

Is 43:16-21; Phil 3:8-14; John 8:1-11

Introduction: Reminding us of God’s readiness to forgive sin, give the sinner a second chance, bind up broken lives, and restore people to His friendship, today’s readings challenge us to show the same mercy to the sinners around us and to live as forgiven people, actively seeking reconciliation with God and with one another. The central theme of all three readings is a merciful God’s steadfast love.  The readings remind us that we should not be self-righteous and condemn the lives of others when God is calling them tenderly to conversion.

Homily starter anecdote: Divine mercy on Chuck Colson: Probably, Chuck Colson (Charles Chuck Wendell Colson, 1931-2012) got evil inspiration from John Profumo to make a scandalous and serios violation of law and served seven months in the Federal Prison, Maxwell, Alabama, for acting as President Nixon's "hatchet man” in the Watergate Scandal. After his prison term, Colson became an Evangelical Christian leader who founded Prison Fellowship and Breakpoint. He was the founder and chairman of The Chuck Colson Center for Christian Worldview, which is "a research, study, and networking center for growing in a Christian worldview.” While Colson lived, the Center’s work included Colson's daily radio commentary, Break Point, which was heard in its original format on more than 1,400 outlets across the United States. Colson was a principal signer of the 1994 Evangelicals and Catholics Together ecumenical document. He was joined by leading Evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholic leaders in the United States. Today’s Gospel describes how Jesus restored a sinful woman by lavishing on her his Divine mercy and forgiveness. She may have become Christ’s follower bearing witness to his mercy till her death. (http://frtonyshomilies.com/).

Scripture lessons summarized: Explaining how a merciful God forgives the sins of His chosen people and leads them back from the Babylonian exile, the first reading reminds us that we too are forgiven, and we are saved from our own sinfulness. In the second reading, Paul presents himself as a forgiven sinner who has been completely transformed by his Faith in Christ Jesus. His life is an example of the Gospel exhortation, “Sin no more.” Paul loves Christ so much he wants to share in His sufferings and even in His death so that he may share Christ’s Resurrection. The sinful woman’s story of sin committed, and sin forgiven in today’s Gospel, shows the inexhaustible mercy and compassion Jesus gives to repentant sinners. In addition, by making sinlessness the condition for throwing the first stone, Jesus forces the accusers to assess their own souls and to leave. Thus, He grants justice to the accusers and mercy to the sinful woman. In our own lives, we bear witness to the Justice of God by confessing our sinfulness and resolving to avoid sin, and we bear witness to God’s Mercy by accepting the forgiveness of our sins and promising to forgive those who have offended us.

First reading: Is 43: 16-21, explained: Today’s Old Testament passage comes from the part of the Book of Isaiah that celebrates the permission from Cyrus the Great (538 BC), for Israel to return to Jerusalem from its exile in Babylon. After blaming the people, through His prophet Isaiah, for the unfaithfulness that had led to their exile, the Lord God assures the Babylonian exiles that He is going to end their prophesied 70 years' exile in Babylon. By having Isaiah remind them of how God had liberated their ancestors from their slavery in Egypt eight centuries earlier, (miraculously destroying the army of the Pharaoh and providing their food and water in the desert), the Lord God assures the exiles that He has forgiven their sins. The prophet exhorted his fellow Jews to look to the past and to remember the wondrous acts of their God all through the stages of their development as a people.  He tells them He will provide for their return journey from Babylon to Jerusalem, giving them food, water and protection from wild animals in the desert. The reading gives us the message that we, too, are forgiven, and we are, with His grace, walking His Way of Salvation away from our own sinfulness and toward Heaven. 

Second reading: Phil 3: 8-14, explained: Saint Paul had tried all his life to earn God's favor by carefully keeping the Law of Moses and by zealously doing what he thought God wanted. Paul enjoyed Roman citizenship and, in addition to his knowledge of the Greek language, culture and philosophies, he had also been schooled in his Jewish heritage under an eminent rabbi (Acts 22:3). His conversion to Christ made him re-evaluate all that "as loss" and "rubbish." Thus, Paul expresses his deep regret and repentance for having persecuted Jesus in His Church and for his own futile attempts at earning righteousness by strict observance of the Mosaic Law before his conversion. Now he understands that the only real way to righteousness is to accept it as an undeserved gift of God's grace. Faith here means belief that Jesus Christ has won this righteousness for us. Faith also means making the honest admission that we, by ourselves, cannot keep any law well enough to earn righteousness, with the confidence that God is good enough to give it to us anyway. Paul does not renounce the moral law, but he sees the righteousness that comes through Faith in Christ as therighteousness from God.  As a result, he loves Christ so much he wants to share in His sufferings, even in His death, so that he may share in Christ’s Resurrection. Just as, in the first reading, Judah is invited by a forgiving God to forget its past sins and their dreadful consequences, Paul acknowledges that the merciful Lord has unconditionally pardoned his sins against Christians. Paul regards himself as having “been taken possession of by Christ Jesus,” and as constantly striving to be ever more conformed to the pattern set by Christ.

Gospel exegesis: Text omitted by ancient manuscripts: This powerful narrative of Jesus and the accused woman is not found in the earliest and best manuscripts of John, but appears in other important manuscripts after Lk 21:38. Almost all scholars today recognize that this text was not originally part of John’s Gospel—but it was obviously such an important story from the life of Jesus that the early Christians wanted to ensure it was not lost, even if they weren’t entirely sure of where to place it. It seems to have much more in common with Luke’s Gospel, and it is very possible that it is a fragment from one of Luke’s sources.  This account is undeniably rich in theological and moral significance, and in psychological and human drama.  Still, early Church authors, such as Papias (ca. A.D. 120) and the author of the Syriac “Teaching of the Twelve Apostles” (3rd cent.), knew of such an incident, and Jerome included it in his translation. For these reasons the story is judged canonical by Catholics. It might have been omitted in some early rigorist traditions because the early Church, in its struggle to maintain strict penitential discipline, perhaps could not deal with the ease with which Jesus forgave the woman. In this episode Jesus seemed too “soft” on sin. Perhaps for this reason, the story was temporarily set aside by the early Church and was only later granted canonical approbation.

The context and the trap: The incident happened in Jerusalem, in the precincts of the Temple where Jesus had been teaching. (“The scribes and the Pharisees” is often a stock phrase in the Gospels for “those Jews who disagreed with Jesus and opposed him.” The scribes were a group of people with particular training in Scripture and in the interpretation of Jewish law. The Pharisees were members of a lay movement that sought to extend God’s reign into every aspect of a person’s day). The scribes and Pharisees brought forward a woman caught in the act of adultery. It was a pitiful, heart-wrenching scenario, calculated to cause her ultimate shame. The Mosaic penalty for such an offense was death by stoning, although there is no evidence that this ever took place, certainly not in Roman times. Besides, Moses commanded that both partners in adultery should be stoned, not only the woman. (Leviticus 20:10; Deuteronomy 22:22). Stoning was mostly done in cases of blasphemy; such was the case with Stephen, whom we read about in the book of Acts. The Jewish civil and criminal code considered three grave sins as punishable by death, namely idolatry, murder and adultery. Deuteronomy prescribes death by strangulation for a married woman caught in adultery. If the guilty woman is betrothed, she has to be stoned. In both cases they have violated God’s sixth commandment and have destroyed the fidelity and unity of marriage. "It is a terrible thing for a sinner to fall into the hands of his fellow sinners.” (F. B. Meyer). His opponents wanted to use the occasion to embarrass Jesus, because he had the reputation of proclaiming God’s mercy toward sinners. If he insisted on following the Law exactly, his reputation as a prophet of God’s mercy would be open to question. Besides, if Jesus consented to her death by strangulation or stoning, he would be violating the Roman law, which forbade killing by private citizens. If he took the side of the adulterous woman, he was open to the charge of ignoring God’s Law and God’s Justice as given by Moses. This was the ingenious trap they had set for Jesus.

Jesus’ fair verdict: Initially, Jesus showed his lack of interest in the case by simply writing on the ground. But he was the only one in the group who could rightly judge the woman. The woman waited to hear Jesus' verdict. She knew that she was guilty. She had passed the judgment on herself, and she accepted Jesus' right to do the same. Perfectly understanding the secret intentions of herself-righteous accusers and the helplessness of the repentant sinner, Jesus gave his verdict: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Thus, Jesus turned the accusers’ attention back on themselves and made them realize that they, too, were sinners. St. Augustine puts Jesus’ stand as follows: “Let this woman be punished, but not by sinners; let the law be applied, but not by its transgressors.” Thus, Jesus ingeniously escaped from the trap by leaving the judgment to the consciences of the accusers. This reduced the accusers to silence, prompting them to leave in shame. According to Jewish custom, the eldest should have begun the stoning. But the accusers melted away, beginning with the elders, who, like the elders in the story of Susannah (Daniel 13), had probably brought the charge.  Since the elders left scene first followed by youngsters the case against the woman was dismissed.  By appealing to the Justice of God and the injustice of humans, Jesus upheld God’s mercyThe moral of the story is not that sin is of no importance, or that God does not punish sin, but that God extends mercy to repentant sinners in order that they may turn from their sins.

Judgment with a stern warning: Since Jesus knew that her sin was a violation of the sixth commandment, “You shall not commit adultery,” he gave the woman the strong warning, “Go, and from now on, do not sin anymore.” Jesus did not shrink from calling her deed a sin, inappropriate and offensive to the Justice of God. He forgave the sinner, but he upheld the Justice of God by not excusing or explaining away the sin. Without minimizing her sinfulness, Jesus showed the sinner the respect she deserved as a human being, treating her with compassion. Clearly, he valued repentance and conversion more than simple reprisal. Not only did Jesus not condemn the woman, he even gave her hope for the future. Jesus is thus portrayed as a living expression of the Divine Mercy, a wise and kind judge, more concerned with forgiveness and rehabilitation than with punishment and death. St. Augustine captures this scene with his apt remark: relicti sunt duo miseria et misericordia (“There are but two left: misery and mercy”). Her story of sin committed, and sin forgiven is an example of the inexhaustible mercy and compassion shown by Jesus to sinners. When we repent and express sorrow for our sins Jesus will say “Neither will I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Jesus’ answer is somewhat ambiguous, and it is perhaps because it was considered “soft” on sexual immorality that some Christian communities might have hesitated to incorporate this particular story into their New Testaments. But Jesus does tell her “not to sin again,” which certainly implies that her behavior was, in fact, sinful; He does not excuse the fact of the sin, or deny its wrongness, but He chooses not to dwell on it, knowing that the entire experience has been more than traumatic enough.

Story of Divine mercy: God imposed the death penalty in the Old Testament for all types of serious sins: for idolatry, murder, blasphemy, using the Lord’s name in vain, profaning the Sabbath, cursing or striking father and mother, kidnapping, and several sexual sins (see Exodus 19, 21, 22, 31, 35 and Leviticus 20). The Church still teaches that there is still a “death penalty,” an eternal death penalty, associated with such grave sins. That is why we call this type of sin “mortal,” or “deadly.” When we commit such an act with knowledge and deliberate consent, we die spiritually, we commit spiritual suicide, and we cause definitive self-separation from God. When we understand why the death penalty is just for such sins, we will appreciate in its depth God’s merciful love on the Cross. Besides, God Himself revealed, especially through the Prophets Jeremiah, Isaiah, Hosea, and Ezekiel that every sin is an act of adultery because it is being unfaithful to the spousal covenant of love we have entered into with God (see Jer 3:20, Is 1:21, Is 57:8, Hos 2:2-5, Hos 3:1-5, Hos 9:1, Ez 16:30). Hence, the story of the woman caught in adultery helps us recognize and receive the immensity of God’s mercy. That is why Pope Francis in his first Sunday homily as Pope declared: “God never tires of forgiving us…. It’s we who tire of asking for forgiveness.” Then he prayed, “May we never tire of asking for what God never tires to give!”

Life messages: # 1: We need to become forgiving people, ready for reconciliationJesus has shown inexhaustible mercy and compassion to sinners by dying for our sins. But we are often self-righteous like the Pharisees, and ready to spread scandal about others with a bit of spicy gossip. We are judgmental about the unmarried mother, the alcoholic, the drug addict and the shop-lifter, ignoring Jesus’ command: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  Let us learn to acknowledge our sins, ask God’s forgiveness every day and extend the same forgiveness to our erring brothers and sisters. We too should learn to hate the sin and love the sinners showing them mercy, compassion, sympathy and acceptance, leading them to Jesus’ ways by our own exemplary lives.

2) We have no right to judge others: We have no right to judge others because we often commit the very faults we condemn, we are often partial and prejudiced in our judgment and we do not know the circumstances which have led someone to sin. Hence, let us leave the judgment to our just and merciful God who reads people’s hearts. We should show mercy and compassion to those who sin because we ourselves are sinners in need of God’s forgiveness. The apostle Paul reminds us: “But if we judged ourselves, we would not come under judgment.” (1 Cor 11:31). (Fr. Antony Kadavil).

04 April 2019, 11:34