Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Francis Xavier Church, Hyannis, MA
Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year C
March 28, 2004
Is43:16-21; Philippians 3:8-12; Jn 8:1-11
1) Last week, 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 (parable) about God’s forgiveness becomes REALITY, in the encounter of Jesus with the woman caught in adultery and with all the “older brothers” who were trying to get her killed rather than trying to bring her to mercy. Just as Jesus wanted us last week to see ourselves as the prodigal son, who acted as if his father were dead and squandered the inheritance of love, so he wants us to see ourselves in the woman caught red-handed. Moreover, just as the Lord wants us to recognize that often we can behave like the older brother in the parable who resents mercy given to sinful siblings, so, too, the Lord wishes us to drop whatever stones are in our hands and use even other’s sins as a reminder of our own.
2) The Church gives us this reading on the fifth Sunday of Lent to remind us, first, of the horror and the just consequences of sin; second, of the incredible gift of God’s mercy; and third, of what we need to do to receive that mercy. We’ll examine all three in turn.
3) To many people in our day, that the woman in today’s Gospel would have actually been KILLED for committing adultery seems shocking. Last year, a woman in Nigeria was sentenced by a Muslim court to be killed for having committed adultery and there was a huge international outcry. In Saudi Arabia, they routinely behead women convicted of this sin and crime. But while we might be tempted to assume a morally superior attitude toward the fundamentalist Muslims in Africa or in the Middle East, it is quite another thing 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 be divine. Many of those in our day might go even further, and question whether there should be any penalties at all for such conduct, done, for the most part, “in the privacy of a bedroom.”
4) But when we look at the genuine reality of this sin, it is OUR OWN ATTITUDE that is perhaps more shocking, that we would treat such a sin — that breaks a covenant with another and with God and that destroys families — so lightly. God gave Moses the command in the Pentateuch so that we might learn the real gravity of such a sin by the severity of the penalty. St. Paul several centuries later would call the Old Testament law our “pedagogue” and “disciplinarian” until Christ came (Gal 3:24). The law was a gift of God to teach us JUSTICE in terms of our relationship with Him and with others, for without this justice, we would never be able to appreciate GOD’S MERCY when Christ came. The death penalty existed for all types of serious sins: for idolatry, murder, blasphemy, using the Lord’s name in vain, cursing or striking father and mother, incest, kidnapping, homosexual activity, profaning the sabbath, beastiality and others (see Exodus 19, 21, 22, 31, 35 and Leviticus 20). Many, today, might be surprised to discover that there is STILL a death penalty associated with these types of sins: an eternal one. 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, killing off God’s life inside of us, and merit eternal death away from God. This is the just consequence of such sins, which treat God as if he is dead, much like the prodigal son initially treated his father.
5) The Good News that Jesus came to reveal to us in the fullness of time is that he came to SAVE US SINNERS from our sins. But he does this, not by saying that sins like adultery aren’t as serious now as they were in Old Testament times; he doesn’t say that the just penalty is something less than death. In fact, he came to reveal their full seriousness and fulfill all justice. By having committed such sins, we were all slated and sentenced to die. But Jesus, our judge, 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 God’s merciful love on the Cross.
6) That’s really the first big lesson in today’s Gospel that the Church wants us to grasp this Lent. Each of us is like that woman caught in adultery, whether or not we’ve been captured by others in the act of committing such a sin. In the revelation God gave us in the Old Testament, He revealed that every sin is really adultery, because it is being unfaithful to the covenant of love we have entered into with God. He referred to Israel as his adulterous bride, and, in some ways, each of us are part of that adulterous bride. Each of us merits to be stoned. But, as we see in St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, Christ laid down his life to make his bride holy and spotless. He, the only one who fully merits to be able to cast a stone, took the stones, the bullet, intended for us and died out of love so that his bride wouldn’t have to.
7) Such great love is supposed to lead to three reactions on our part:
a) The first is to have a just horror for our sins and to recognize how deadly they are — not only do they kill us, but they killed the Lord, the person who loved us more (and more purely) than anyone ever will. No one has ever loved us more than Jesus did, and therefore no one has ever hated what will kill us — sin — more than he did. We’re called to hate these lethal spiritual toxins as much as Jesus does. He said in the Sermon on the Mount, out of love for us, “If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell” (Mt 5:29-30). The first thing the Lord calls us to do, if we’ve been catching ourselves in the act of committing sins during these days, is to stop.
b) The second thing is to come to receive his mercy — The Lord doesn’t want to wait until others catch us in the act of a serious sin and drag us to Him. He wants us to come on our own. In the big picture, it was a great gift that the woman in the Gospel was busted and embarrassed and dragged to Jesus, because, without it, she might never have come to meet the Lord’s mercy. But he Lord says to us that there is an easier way. On Easter Sunday evening, he breathed the Holy Spirit on the apostles and sent them out to forgive and retain sins in his name. Through them, Jesus called and sent out yet others, through whom he called and sent out yet others, until the priests today were called and sent out for the same mission. “Just as the Father sent me, so I send you,” Jesus said to them in the upper room. Jesus was sent by the Father to forgive sins and Jesus sends priests with the same mission. Christ acts through them in the sacrament of confession in the same way he acts through them in the sacrament of the Eucharist. We should, therefore, go to Him in the Sacrament of Reconciliation with the same facility and frequency with which we come to Him in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. The bulletin contains the added hours that Christ will be waiting to receive you and forgive your sins through the ministrations of the priests of this parish. You haven’t made a good Lent until you’ve made a good confession and received God’s mercy. Bring yourself there, or, if you must, have those around you — your spouses, your kids, your parents, your friends, your colleagues — drag you without the stones, because they, like God, may recognize even more than you what sins you’ve committed. At the end of that confession, Jesus will say to us with tender love, as he said to the woman, “I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
c) The third reaction is to stop judging others and begin to extend God’s merciful forgiveness to them — Jesus says to us very clearly that the measure with which we measure will be measured back to us. He tells us not to judge lest we be judged (cf. Lk 6:36-38). Every stone we toss, therefore, is a boomerang, that will come back to hit the sender. If we think we’re fit to toss stones at others, Jesus reminds us, that those stones will in fact zero in on as as the target. Very often the reason why we start to notice everyone else’s sins is because it is the easiest way for us to get our attention off of our own. That is why the Lord, who understood man’s heart and psychology perfectly, said, “ Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the plank is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye” (Mt 7:3-5). When we find ourselves starting to judge others, he calls us to look in the mirror and deal with our own sins, so that WE CAN SEE CLEARLY, in love, and help others in their own battle against sin. Ultimately Jesus wants us to use other’s sins as an occasion for us to reflect on our own. Whenever we pick up stones, he calls us to use them to beat our own breasts. Then, after we’ve converted, we might be able to bring others to forgiveness through our love and good example. If other’s sins are an occasion for our own repentance, then we will indeed have a chance to become the saints God calls us to be. And this is the way we will love others as he has loved us and to be merciful as our heavenly Father is merciful (Lk 6:36).
8 ) St. Paul lived this experience of conversion to which the Lord calls us all this weekend. As a very talented young man, he constantly judged others by the law and found them wanting in comparison to him and to his zeal. He hated the Christians and considered them a blasphemous sect and went after them, ripping them out of their homes and getting some of them killed. Under his direct supervision, many Jews in Jerusalem picked up stones with which to kill St. Stephen. But that was the beginning of his conversion. St. Stephen prayed that this would not be held against them — and his prayer was heard. Saul was forgiven and he was converted. He then became one of the Lord’s greatest preachers, announcing throughout the known world at the time the good news of salvation from sin through Christ. Along that way, he himself was stoned at Lystra and left for dead. But, as he tells us in the second reading today, “I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” He knew the Lord above all through his mercy and counted everything else — including all his suffering — as rubbish compared with this great gift. He wants us to experience the same thing. He repeats to us the words he said to us live on Ash Wednesday, “As ambassadors of Christ, God as it were making his appeal through us, we entreat you on behalf of Christ: be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the holiness of God. As we work together with him, we urge you also not to accept the grace of God in vain” (2 Cor 5:20-22). In order not to receive that grace in vain, we need to be reconciled with God. Lent is so great a gift and Paul tells us very directly: don’t waste it.
9) The body of Christ we’re about to receive in Holy Communion is the same body that hung upon the Cross. The blood in this chalice is the same blood that dripped from the crown of thorn and the Lord’s five wounds. The Lord went through all of this in our stead, to forgive us our sins. The judgmental pharisees who were trying to condemn the woman in today’s Gospel were at the foot of the Cross taunting Jesus, as if he were a sinner himself. But from that Cross, Jesus looked up to the Father and said, “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do!,” and then, specifically, to one repentant thief, “Today I tell you, you will be with me in paradise.” He who said those words is the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. How blessed are those invited to this wedding feast of the Lamb!