Our Adultery and God’s Mercy, Fifth Sunday of Lent (C), March 13, 2016

Fr. Roger J. Landry
Church of the Holy Family, Manhattan
Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year C
March 13, 2016
Is 43:16-21, Ps 126, Philippians 3:8-12, Jn 8:1-11


To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 


The following text guided today’s homily: 

The Purpose of Lent

The whole purpose of Lent is to bring us to a face-to-face, a heart-to-heart, encounter with God’s mercy. On Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, St. Paul in the Epistle begged us, as an ambassador of Christ — God as it were appealing through him — to be “reconciled to God” and to waste any time because “now” is the “day of salvation.” The prophet Joel told us to rip open our hearts to God’s mercy — a summons repeated in today’s Gospel versus — at the very same time that we prayed in the Psalm, “Be merciful, O Lord, for we have sinned.” And the priest marked us with ashes, he repeated to us the words of Jesus’ first homily: “Repent and believe in the Gospel.” Lent is about recognizing our need for repentance. It’s about believing in the Gospel of God’s merciful love and saving plan. And it’s about coming to receive that great gift and live new lives. The deeper we get into the Lent, the more powerful this message becomes.

The Actualization of the Parable of the Prodigal Son

Last week, as you recall, Jesus preached to us the Parable of the Prodigal Son, which stressed the Father’s undying love for his wayward child, the meaning of genuine repentance and the sadness of the older brother who couldn’t share his father’s joy. In today’s Gospel, that story about God’s forgiveness takes on life, in the encounter of Jesus with the woman caught in adultery and with the hardness of heart of all the “older brothers” who were trying to get her killed rather than trying to bring her to salvation through conversion and to mercy. Just as Jesus wanted us last week to identify with the Prodigal Son, so he wants us to see ourselves in the woman caught red-handed; just as he wanted us to recognize that often we can behave like the older brother in the Parable who resents mercy given to sinful siblings, so, too, he wishes us to drop whatever stones are in our hands and use even other’s sins as a reminder of our own; and just as in last week’s Parable, he wanted to illustrate God’s infinite merciful love and the joy of his forgiveness and reconciliation with him, so today he hopes that we will come to hunger for us to have as life-changing an experience with his mercy as did the adulterous woman.

A Death Penalty for Adultery? 

In order for us to have that experience, however, we first need to put ourselves in the desperate situation of that woman, who to some degree symbolizes the situation of anyone who is found in a situation of serious sin. To many people in our culture today, that the woman in today’s Gospel would have actually been killed for committing adultery seems downright shocking, but in 15 countries there are still laws on the books that permit stoning for adultery — and such stoning happens by extra-judicial mobs in several other places. It might be tempting to assume a morally superior attitude toward those “uncivilized,” seemingly merciless countries with such laws, but the subject takes on greater depth when we confront the reality that God said to Moses, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (Lev 20:10). This is the teaching to which the men in the parable were referring when they said, “In the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.” Faced with such a statement and the reality to which it points, many of us might be led to ask, “How could God have allowed this?” Such a penalty seems almost too harsh and too horrible to come from a God who is “kind and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in compassion” (Ex 34:6; Ps 103:8). Many of those in our day might go further and question whether there should be any serious penalties at all for conduct done for the most part, in hidden confines, or for so-called “private sins” in general.

But when we look at the genuine reality of the sin of adultery — which as we’ll sin is a Biblical image for sin in general — it is our own attitude that is perhaps more shocking, that we would treat lightly the infidelity that ruptures a covenant of love with a spouse and with God and that destroys so many families. We’re living in a day in which 35 percent of American men and 17 percent of U.S. women admit in surveys they have engaged in extramarital affairs during their marriage. We’re living in a day in which many more engage in what Jesus Christ himself clearly says is “adultery in the heart” through pornography (Mt 5:28). We’re living in a day in which actors and athletes, singers and politicians, ex-presidents and present presidential candidates, even brag about adulterous affairs. That’s why it’s important for us to slow down and ponder just what God told Moses to tell his people: God gave Moses the command about the way to treat adulterers so that we might learn the gravity of the sin by the severity of the penalty. St. Paul several centuries later would call the Old Testament law our “tutor” or “disciplinarian” until Christ came to enflesh God’s mercy (Gal 3:24). The law was a divine gift to teach us justice in terms of our relationship with God and others, for without this justice, we would never later be able to appreciate God’s mercy given to us in Christ. God laid down the death penalty 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).

Many, today, might be surprised to discover 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, we kill off God’s life within, and we essentially choose to head in the direction of eternal death, of definitive self-separation from God. This is the just consequence of such sins, because, just like the Prodigal Son in order to seize his inheritance was treating his father as if the Father were already dead, so through sin, we treat God the Father as if he is dead, we want to leave his home, and we want to go far from him and waste the inheritance of the treasure of grace he’s given us. In serious sin, we’re choosing Barabbas in an alluring disguise and saying — whether we really intend to or not — “crucify” Christ, because to free us from our sins and the eternal death penalty they merited, Jesus allowed himself to be murdered on Golgotha. That’s the sentence for our crimes. That’s the diagnosis for our illness. That’s what we might call the “bad news” in all its shocking, brutal honesty.

And it’s also what allows us to open ourselves up to the Good News in all his radiant beauty. The Gospel that Jesus came to reveal to us in the fullness of time is that he entered our world, he took on our nature, to save us from our sins, to die for us and rise on the third day so that we won’t die and can rise with him. But Jesus does this, not by pretending that sins like adultery aren’t as serious now as they were in Old Testament times. He does this not by feigning in this scene that the appropriate penalty is something less than death. In fact, he came to give witness to the truth, to fulfill all justice, and that involves the just truth that by freely choosing to commit such sins, we were all slated and sentenced to die, but Jesus, our just judge, after the sentenced was pronounced, came off his bench and took our place on death row. He died in our stead. Only if we understand why the death penalty is just for such sins will we ever appreciate in its depth God’s merciful love on the Cross.

Every sin is adulterous

That’s really one of the big lessons that the Church wants us to grasp this Lent and during this Jubilee of Mercy. To some degree, each of us is like the woman caught in adultery, whether or not we’ve been captured by others in the act of committing such a sin. 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, Ezek 16:30) Through these prophets God not only reminded Israel of its infidelity but showed his own faithful love, that even though Israel had chosen to cavort with idols of their own making, even though Israel had repeatedly chosen to sin, God’s will was to forgive her and purify her. These prophecies when Jesus himself came. Jesus didn’t die on the Cross for sinners who were “strangers” to him. He died for his Bride! He died for us. St. Paul described this when he called husbands to love their wives “just as Christ loved the church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her, cleansing her by the bath of water with the word, that he might present to himself the church in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:25-27). He, who with his sinless mother was the only one who fully merited to be able to cast a stone, took the stones, the nails, the beating, intended for us and died out of love so that we, his bride, wouldn’t have to. What incredible love is this!

Never Tiring of God’s Saving Us

And that brings us to the main lesson of the readings today, the main point of Lent, the real goal of the extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy. It’s to help us recognize and receive the immensity of God’s mercy. Three years ago today Pope Francis was elected and, four days later, on his first Sunday as Pope, he celebrated Mass at the Church of St. Anne in the Vatican and then preached his first Angelus Meditation to the crowd of about 300,000 that had assembled in St. Peter’s Square and down the long boulevard leading up to St. Peter’s. And in both the homily and in the Angelus, he said the same beautiful message, basing himself on today’s Gospel of the woman caught in adultery. “God never tires of forgiving us,” he proclaimed. “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!” What the Pope said so beautifully is true: Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God, is always desiring to take away the sins for which he paid the supreme price on Golgotha, but often our hearts are too stubborn, too lazy, to enslaved to acknowledge our sins and come to allow him to forgive them. Pope Francis is still praying that none of us will ever fatigue of asking for God’s forgiveness and coming to receive it. He’s called this extraordinary Jubilee of Mercy, now in its fourth month, precisely to help the whole Church never to cease of asking for divine clemency and then, having been forgiven, learn how to draw others to Jesus, not so that he can condemn them, but so that he can forgive and save them. He’s hoping that we won’t wait for others to drag us shamefully before the crowds with all our sins exposed for all to see; he’s certainly praying that we won’t go to our judgment that way; rather, he’s praying that each of us will make the effort to go on our own to meet Christ in confession so that Jesus will be able to say to us through his priests, “I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.” This is the way that the Lord who said in today’s first reading, “See, I am doing something new!” seeks to make us new. This is the means by which St. Paul, who said in today’s first reading that he longed to experience the “power of [Christ’s] resurrection,” came to experience it and that we will come to experience it. Because as we heard last week, when the Father embraced his Prodigal Son, he pointed to the reality of what was happening: “My son was dead and has come back to life.” Jesus founded the Sacrament of his Mercy on Easter Sunday evening precisely so because, mysteriously, sacramentally, but truthfully, every reconciliation is meant to be a resurrection, when we experience the power of Christ’s resurrection triumphing over our sins and over what our sins lead to, Christ’s death and our death. Every Confession gloriously participates to some degree in what we celebrate on Easter Sunday, that our “felix culpa,” that our “happy sin” has brought us to experience the love of our Redeemer and the power of his risen life.

Mother Teresa’s lessons on Confession

So what are we going to do? The Pope is still praying that we not only won’t tire of asking for God’s forgiveness but that we’ll come to receive it. He wants each of us not only to go to Confession this Lent but to make, with God’s help, the best Confession of our life. On Tuesday, the Holy Father will announce the long-awaited date of the canonization of Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. While Mother Teresa is certainly famous for the charity with which she poured herself out in love for Christ in the distressing disguise of lepers, AIDS victims, the dying, the untouchables, she was likewise a great “Missionary of Mercy” in calling everyone to receive Jesus’ forgiving love in the Sacrament of Confession, a Sacrament she received at least once a week. She would counsel others, “One thing is necessary for us: Confession. Confession is nothing but humility in action. We call it Penance, but really it is a Sacrament of Love, a Sacrament of forgiveness. It is a place where I allow Jesus to take away from me everything that divides, that destroys. Confession is a beautiful act of great love. Only in confession can we go in as sinners with sin and come out as sinners without sin. … There’s no need for us to despair, no need for us to commit suicide, no need for us to be discouraged, if we have understood the tenderness of God’s love.” She said elsewhere, very simply, “Confession is Jesus and I, and nobody else.” And then she told us, “Remember this for life.”

Knowing Christ Jesus

And so today we remember and ask her intercession never to forget that in the great Sacrament of Love we call Confession, it’s just Jesus and each of us and nobody else. Jesus is truly present, forgiving us, counseling us, and encouraging us through the very same priests through whom he gives us his Body and Blood. In today’s second reading, St. Paul says, “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” And we know that He came to know the Lord above all through the Lord’s mercy, forgiving him of having persecuted and killed Christians, including St. Stephen, and then nevertheless choosing him to become his ambassador of mercy, appealing to others, still down to our own day, as he did to us on Ash Wednesday, to be “reconciled to God” (2 Cor 5:20-22). St. Paul, Blessed Mother Teresa, Pope Francis and all the saints want us to have the same surpassing value and joy that they had, that the woman in today’s Gospel had, of coming to know Christ Jesus our Lord and know Him as the Lamb of God who has come to take away our sins, the one who has come to save us from death, the one who has come to reveal the Father’s true loving face, the one who has come Mercy Incarnate! May we never tire of seeking that reconciliation, because it is through his forgiveness that not only he wipes us clean, but makes us anew his spotless Bride, ready for the consummation of our nuptial union that takes place on the marriage bed of the altar!

The readings for today’s Mass were: 

Reading 1 IS 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.

Responsorial Psalm PS 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6

R. (3) 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.
R. 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.
R. 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.
R. 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.
R. The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.

Reading 2 PHIL 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.

Verse Before The Gospel JL 2:12-13

Even now, says the Lord,
return to me with your whole heart;
for I am gracious and merciful.

Gospel JN 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.”


Screen Shot 2016-03-13 at 2.48.12 PM