Just this morning Pope Benedict tweeted: "We must trust in the mighty power of God’s mercy. We are all sinners, but His grace transforms us and makes us new." Trusting in these words is what makes Lent even remotely worthwhile.
On Facebook not long ago I read something along the following lines: I could turn to the Bible for morality, but then I could pick corn out feces. Despite the best efforts of some Christians, we do not read the Bible like Muslims read the Qu'ran, or Jews read the To'rah. For Christians, God's mercy, given us gratuitously in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit, trumps law. The Bible is not first and foremost a handbook of morality. Rather, it is the story of God's mercy, of how our good and gracious God takes pity on our folly out of love for us.
Prior to or at the beginning of Lent each year for the past five years or so I have re-read a snippet from an Ash Wednesday homily delivered by Fr. Harry Williams: "It is a pity that we think of Lent as a time when we try to make ourselves uncomfortable in some fiddling but irritating way. And it’s more than a pity, it’s a tragic disaster, that we also think of it as a time to indulge in the secret and destructive pleasure of doing a good orthodox grovel to a pseudo-Lord, the Pharisee in each of us we call God and who despises the rest of what we are." It is to offset this tendency that I humbly offer my first-ever homily.
Readings: Isa 43:16-21; Ps 126:1-6; Phil 3:8-14; John 8:1-11
Jesus’ experience as he descends the Mt. of Olives into the precincts of the Temple early in the morning is one to which many of us can relate. It is easy to imagine Jesus on the Mt. of Olives in a deep, intimate prayer-experience with his Father. As he enters the courtyards of the Temple he is confronted by the mundane head-on. But rather than responding as we often do to worldly cares and concerns, especially after deeply spiritual moments, with impatience, Jesus remains true to his mission of uniting heaven and earth in his very person.
What Jesus encounters, as the Gospel makes explicit, is a test, a trap, yet another attempt by the religious authorities of his day to impale him on the horns of a vicious dilemma. In the Judaism of Jesus’ time, when a difficult legal question arose, it was taken to a Rabbi. So, it is as a Rabbi that Jesus is approached with the case of a woman caught in an act of adultery. Rather than the particulars of the case, or the trickery of the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus perceives a person in distress, a scared and shamed woman, a person stripped of her dignity and seemingly at the mercy of the merciless. In the story there is no question about her guilt, though one wonders to where her partner has disappeared. She is a person, when measured by the law, “not having a righteousness of her own” (Phil 3:9). In his response to this distressed and about- to- be- killed woman, Jesus reveals the mystery of his very person. In his words and actions he reveals that he is at once true God and true man.
In an act of human solidarity he sees the distress of this woman as his own. He takes pity on her and shares in her fear and shame. Among the many explanations given by commentators as to why or possibly what he wrote in the dirt, one stands out particularly well with regard to Jesus’ truly human response to this situation: he was seized with an intolerable sense of shame. As a result, he could not make eye contact with the crowd nor with the woman’s accusers and least of all with the accused herself. “In his burning embarrassment and [initial] confusion he stooped down so as to hide his face and began writing . . . on the ground.” Perhaps the leering, lustful looks on the faces of the accusers and the bleak cruelty in their eyes combined with the prurient curiosity of the crowd, not to mention the shame of the woman, all ‘combined to twist the very heart of Jesus in agony and pity, so that he hid his eyes” (Barclay Gospel of John, Vol. 2, pg. 3).
After His pause, Jesus, begins to reveal his divinity, not by cleverness, but by his love born of human compassion. And, without impugning the law of Moses, he challenges the scribes and Pharisees and beats them at their own game. “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,” he says to the accusers (Jn 8:7). After speaking these very few words, he bends down and resumes writing on the ground. Upon his doing this the crowd disperses, the accusers drop their stones and slowly walk away, no doubt murmuring among themselves. After the crowd leaves, much to her surprise, Jesus, though himself without sin, refuses to condemn the woman. Yet in refusing to condemn her for her sin, Jesus does not condone her sin. Rather, he acknowledges it and admonishes her to “go, and do not sin again” (John 8:11).
By forgiving so freely, without the sinner uttering one word of contrition, Jesus does not defeat divine justice. Instead he transcends the demand of justice (in this case death) and seeks to turn a sinner into a righteous person (gives life). By so doing he displays his divinity. He fulfills the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Behold I am doing a new thing.” (Isa 43:19) God gives us the free gift of Jesus Christ “to manifest his own justice.” This manifestation of God’s justice is at odds with how we typically conceive of justice. “Spare us your justice and grant us your mercy” is our prayer. However, it is to satisfy divine justice that we are offered Jesus Christ.
Despite the graciousness of God’s gifts of mercy and forgiveness, there is always an implied mutuality. A good example of this is when we pray, as we will in a few moments, the Our Father and say: “forgive us trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” This implied mutuality is best described as receiving a gift. Because God’s mercy and forgiveness, offered to us in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is a gift, our refusal to respond to God’s grace does not cancel out this gracious offer.
As with so many stories told by and about Jesus in the Gospels, this story remains unfinished. It remains unfinished because we do not know how the woman lived the new life gained for her by her Savior. Of more importance to us than speculating about the woman in this story is our own unfinished story. Are we living a new, grace-filled life gained for us by the Savior, Jesus Christ?
There is a connection between today’s Gospel reading and those of the past two Sundays: the thread that links these stories is the call to conversion. The attitude of the men condemning the woman is much the same as the attitude of the older brother in last week’s Gospel. In neither case do those who consider themselves righteous want to show mercy- to forgive. Like the gardener with the barren fig tree, the adulterous woman is given a second chance. If we are to be Jesus’ disciples we must change from self-righteous, judgmental people looking for opportunities to throw stones, into compassionate and forgiving people. We must show the same love for others shown to us by the Father in his Son. It is only by and through such a conversion that we will become God’s Holy People. Let us, as St. Paul admonishes, forget “what lies behind” and “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 3:13-14). And may we, like Jesus, pull others upward with us.