FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT
Is 43:15-21, Phi 3:8-14, Jn 8:1-11. Last Chances… Evaluating Life in the Light of God’s Revelation; Law and Justice; come Back to Me; Right Relationship to God.
One of the most picturesque names of any street in the United States is Last Chance Gulch. Now the main street of Helena, Montana, the name is a reminder of a time when you did not criticize your neighbor until you have walked a mile in his moccasins – because, as the humorist said, by that time you are a mile away and he has no shoes. They gave the name “Last Chance Gulch” because, for the prospectors in the 1860’s who had panned for gold everywhere else, it represented just about their last chance before looking for other work.
Although adultery was so widespread in New Testament times that punishment was hardly ever invoked, the scribes and Pharisees, trying again to entrap Jesus (v. 6), asked him his opinion of the Mosaic Law on the matter (v. 5). The Law said that the punishment was death, but the manner of execution was not precisely prescribed (Lev 20:10); Dt 22:22). The rabbis usually determined the method to be strangling rather than stoning. The mishnah, the Jewish codified law, even laid down the method of strangulation. The executions were to stand the convicted person in dung up to the knees, put a towel around the person’s neck lest there be any mark, and pull in opposite directions until the victim was dead.
The Pharisees’ question put Jesus in what we would call today a double bind. If his answer went against the death penalty, he would seem to be disregarding the Mosaic Law and would be open to the accusation of condoning adultery. If he decided for the death penalty, he might be denounced to the Romans, because the Jews did not have the power to pass or carry out the penalty on their own. And opting for the death penalty would lose the sympathy of the masses of the people, who knew him to be kind to sinners.
But, as someone has said, “There are o flies on the Lamb of God.” Surprisingly, Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger (v. 6). It is the only occasion in which Jesus is said to have written anything, and there is much speculation about it what he wrote. Some says that he was biding time to think and pray about it, others that he was stalling to bring the scribes and the Pharisees to their senses, still others that he was writing the names of the Pharisees’ secret sins. Seeking the leering eyes and cruel looks on their faces, the prurient interest of the crowd, and the embarrassed humiliation of the woman, Jesus wanted to hide his face from all of them in shame.
Jesus’ seeming show of indifferent annoyed the scribes and the Pharisees, and they persisted in their questioning (v. 7). It never entered their minds that authority like theirs should be based on compassion. It was like those systems of justice that aim to be punitive and to destroy, rather than save, reclaim, or cure. There was nothing of St Augustine’s later “There but for the grace of God go I.”
One of Jesus’ basic principles is that no human being is to judge another. The quality needed for final, definitive judging is not knowledge, which many people have, but goodness, which only God has in sufficient degree to make judgements. So Jesus straightened up and charged that the one among them who was without sin be the first to throw a stone at her (v.7). In Jewish law, that would make witnesses responsible for their judgement. If a witness was later provided to have been lying, the witness was condemned to death.
When there was no action, again he bent down and wrote on the ground (v.8), with the result that the audience went away one by one, beginning with the elders (v. 9). Perhaps the suspicious older ones, knowing their lives, thought that he was setting a trap for them in their sins. Or perhaps by now they were ashamed of having tried to use the woman’s humiliation to entrap Jesus.
Whenever their reasons, this left Jesus alone with the woman standing before him (v. 9). Jesus, after allowing her an interval to reflect, asked her, “Has no one condemned you?” (V.10). To her relieved, sobbing, “No one”, Jesus said, “Neither do I.” He added what we hear in the sacrament of Reconciliation, “From now on, avoid your sin” (v. 11). In Jesus’ treatment, justice and mercy met.
It’s important to understand what Jesus did here. He was not a bleeding heart, but a person of informed compassion. The lesson of the story is not that sin is of no importance, or that God does not punish sin, but that God extends mercy to repent sinners in order that they may turn from their sins. It is the lesson of the beautiful hymn, “Come Back to Me”. It is last week’s lesson of the Prodigal Son. With this woman, Jesus was interested, as he is with us, not only in what she was, but in what she could become. Unlike the Pharisees, who wanted to condemn, he wanted to forgive. And he wanted to challenge her – to get her to leave her sin and rebuild her life. He believed in the goodness of people, whereby one who has sinned can change. He was giving the woman another chance. Her life was not over yet; no life is finished until it stands before God.
And that is what today’s Second Reading, from St Paul’s letter to the Philippians, is about – breaking with the past. Paul presents his mature reflections on how much God loves him, written now some twenty years after his conversion on the road to Damascus. The search of his whole life had been for a right relationship with God. In that search, when he was a Pharisee he had tried to achieve blamelessness in God’s sight through perfect observance of the 613 prescriptions of the Mosaic Law. So Paul came to say that, despite his being in jail and very much alone when he wrote today’s epistle, for him all that was dung. Now he realized that blamelessness comes only from a person’s willingness to accept Christ.
Paul accepted the loss of all things that he might gain Christ (v. 8). To that end, he wanted to “know” Christ (v. 10). For him, to “know” didn’t mean the aloof intellectual acquisition which we often mean. It meant the most intimate personal experience of another person that anyone could have. The Jewish scriptures often used it to mean sexual intercourse. For Paul, to know Christ is the guarantee that this life is worth living, the guarantee for us of a life to come, the guarantee that the presence of the risen Lord is always with us. It also meant sharing in Jesus’ sufferings. Because Christians who suffer are sharing in the sufferings of Christ, our sufferings aren’t a penalty but a privilege. Thus will we achieve the resurrection from the dead (v. 11). We share the sufferings of Jesus endured, the cross he carried, the death he died – and the life he now lives. But neither Paul nor the adulterous woman nor we have yet attained perfect maturity (v. 12). The process of maturing is ongoing (v.13). In a lively figure from sport, Paul mentions that, forgetting what Lies behind but staining forward to what lies ahead, he continued his pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling (v. 14). We seem to hear Satchel Paige’s famous phrase: “Don’t look back; somebody might be gaining on you.” And we picture Paul struggling for breath, arms flailing, chest heaving, fists tight, sweat pouring, body bent toward the goal. That’s a picture of one who takes a right relationship with God Seriously.
Today’s reading from Isaiah shows that a right relationship with God is not only important, but possible, no matter how difficult the situation. Isaiah was promising redemption and restoration during, of all times, the Jew’s pitiful Babylonian Captivity. When everything seemed more hopeless than even the captivity in Egypt seven centuries before, Isaiah was speaking of a new Exodus from Babylon, when God will work new wonders.
But Isaiah reminded his people of who God is. He isn’t simply a God of fear and punishment, but is a loving and caring God. That God can do anything, even bring it about that powerful Babylon be snuffed out. His great deeds are not solely wonder of the past (v. 18). God is always acting, always doing something new (V. 19).
God’s story with each of us is going on right here and now. As indicated by Isaiah’s prophecy and Paul’s letter and today’s Gospel, we must evaluate all the situations of our lives in the light of God’s revelation. The newness of God’s story goes on with our Elect who will encounter the dynamic Sacrament of Baptism at the Easter Vigil. We taste the newness each time we experience the “second baptism” of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Our passing from sin to salvation is a continuous redemptive act. And each act of God’s grace with us may be our Last Chance Gulch