Fr. Roger J. Landry
Espirito Santo Parish, Fall River, MA
5th Sunday of Lent, Year C
April 1, 2001
Is 43:16-21; Phil 3:8-14; Jn 8:1-11
1) Last week we encountered the extraordinary parable of Jesus about the Prodigal Son, about the Father’s love for his wayward child, and about the older brother who was so upset when his Father showed mercy and rejoiced at the return of his son. Well this week that story, that parable, about God’s forgiveness becomes reality in this real-life encounter of Jesus with the woman caught in adultery. But the lessons we learned last week are so relevant to what we see this week.
2) They caught the woman red-handed. She was definitely guilty of that sin. And that sin had a clear penalty under Mosaic laws: those who willingly choose to destroy their marriages and their families through adultery were subject to the death penalty by stoning. The Pharisees, those who had such a difficult time with Jesus’ forgiving of sinners, brought her to him to try to trap him. Either Jesus would side with Moses and say this woman had to be stoned and everyone would see that he could not be merciful to great sinners like he was teaching, or he would side with the woman and against Moses. They thought they had an air-tight case. But they were wrong.
3) They made the woman stand out in front of everyone, alone. “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the very act of adultery. Moses ordered such women to be stoned. What do you have to say about the case?” Jesus merely wrote on the ground for a while. The saints throughout the centuries have given their guesses about what Jesus would have been writing. Many say he was writing the word “hypocrite,” others that he was writing out what the accusers’ sins were. Whatever he was writing, when they persisted in their questioning, Jesus stood up and said, “Let the man among you who has no sin be the first to cast a stone at her.” He then wrote again. One by one they left, beginning with the elders.
4) Let’s stop here for a moment. Sometimes we can be amazed at Jesus’ wisdom in his replies to those who challenge him. We can say to ourselves, “I sure wish that if I were ever in trouble that Jesus would be my lawyer.” But Jesus here is being much more than witty or sharp or smarter than his accusers. He was seeing straight into their hearts, particularly their sinful hearts. That was the reason for his challenge to them — let him among you without sin be the first to cast a stone — because he knew that it was precisely because of their sin that they were trying to bring the woman to be stoned.
5) The reason why Jesus’ message of forgiveness was so difficult for the Pharisees to understand was because they themselves had never truly experienced forgiveness or a God who loves them so much that he does forgive them. Their notion of the “law,” of religion, was all those things we “have to” do, but there was no joy in it. Anyone who enjoyed life for them was a sinner, and the Pharisee’s only justification in living such a miserable, loveless existence was the fact that others would have to “pay” for their misdeeds. When they caught someone in sin, they wanted the maximal penalty, and there was no room for any love or mercy, because like the older son in last week’s parable, they lived not as sons and daughters of God but as slaves of a severe master.
6) But what Jesus also knew was that although they might not have been committing similar deeds with their bodies, they were committing them with their flesh. One of the great principles of the spiritual life is that if you personally have a problem, a particular sin you’re struggling with on the inside, and you’re not honest with yourself in giving it to the Lord, what you end up doing is to “find” that sin in everyone else. It’s the principle of seeing the speck in everyone else’s eyes while avoiding the plank in our own. How was it that these men ended up catching this woman? Probably because they had been checking it out for weeks, lusting after her.
7) It’s the same way with us today. That’s why this Gospel is so important. When we find ourselves merciless with others, it’s almost always a cover for our own sinfulness. If we find it difficult to forgive others a particular sin, very often it’s because we ourselves are struggling or have struggled against that sin and never really been honest with the Lord and therefore humble with ourselves. One of the great tragedies of our lifetime has been the scourge of abortion. I’m convinced, however, that really the only reason abortion was ever able to get off the ground is because if a young woman were caught pregnant outside of wedlock, everyone would condemn her, would forever think of her as a sinner. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote a very famous book once from Salem called the Scarlet Letter, about a woman caught in adultery who was impregnated. Her whole life she suffered from the shame. No one would ever forgive her.
8 ) One of the most promising aspects of the pro-life movement now is that we are finally becoming more Christ-like in reaching out to women who are pregnant, no matter what the circumstances. We’ve prayed for the conversion of those in the abortion industry, and, upon their conversions, embraced them with open arms. The woman who became famous as Jane Roe (from Roe v. Wade), Norma McCorvey, became a Christian a few years ago. We welcomed her with great joy. The woman who was Jane Doe in the Doe v. Bolton decision that came out with Roe, we also welcomed with open arms. The most prolific abortion doctor in US History, whose hands were stained by the blood of tens of thousands of unborn children throughout the years, Dr. Bernard Nathanson, was so overwhelmed by the genuine goodness of some priests who used to try to talk him out of performing abortions, that he not only stopped performing abortions, but was baptized a Christian by Cardinal O’Connor of NY.
9) Likewise, if we’re going to be truly Christians, we always have to embrace the sinner. Notice I didn’t say the repentant sinner. We have to embrace the sinner, to love the sinner always, while, with Jesus, hating the sin and trying to sin no more and encourage others to do the same. Let us observe Jesus. When everyone had left, dropping their stones on the ground, Jesus found himself alone with the woman, stood up and said to her, “Woman, has no one condemned you?” “No one sir,” she replied. Then Jesus said with words he so desperately wants to say to each of us when we find ourselves enmeshed in sin, “Then neither do I condemn you.” Jesus came down from heaven to save us, not to condemn us. But he does hate sin, and tells the woman, “Go and sin no more.” Jesus doesn’t pretend that adultery is all right, that these types of sins are fine. He wants all of us to stop sinning, now, and to come to him for forgiveness. If we do, then he will be able to say to us, as he does every single time we go to confession, confess all our mortal sins, with true sorrow and a firm intention to change our lives, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
10) The question we have to answer, however, is this. How do we balance loving the sinner and hating the sin? How do we balance dissuading people from premarital sex, or adultery, or theft, or abortion, or murder, or blowing off God every Sunday, while still loving the person who commits these sins? How do we really live Jesus’ Gospel? In order to have any chance at all, we have to come to grips first with the fact that we’re all terrible sinners. That if Jesus allowed sinners to be stoned, we’d be the first ones hit. To have a great humility about our own struggles, so that we can mercifully treat all others with theirs, and have compassion when they fall, because we know just how often we fall. Most of the time those who are the greatest sinners act as if they’re very holy. We need to look in their mirror and drop the stones we’d be tempted to throw at everybody else.
11) At the same time, though, we have to recognize the great damage that sin always does to us and to others. Because we love others, because we see the damage done to them, we want to help them get out of the sin. Sin really does kill us, it kills God’s life within us. We should hate the sin because of this damage that it does to us or to others. Because we love sinners, we HAVE TO HATE SIN, because it does so much damage to others, in the same way, if we love our children, we’re going to hate loaded guns in the home because it could kill them. The same thing will all of these sins. We hate sin because of the damage it does. We hate contraception because it destroys families and leads to divorce. We abhor abortion because it leaves one dead and one wounded. We detest people blowing off God on Sundays, because they get further and further away from the only source of true happiness, the God who loves them, and the only way they can receive God physically present inside. We hate sin ultimately because if a person dies in the state of mortal sin, they will live forever outside of God’s presence, and we love sinners too much to ever want that. God would never want us to pretend as if sin isn’t sin — like so many in our world today who preach tolerance, trying to pretend as if sin isn’t really all that bad, as if it really didn’t kill — but rather than preach a fake form of mercy — tolerance — he wants us to call sin by its real name (spiritual poison), while doing everything we can to help people to come back to God.
12) The Church gives us this Gospel in the week before Palm Sunday to force us to realize that we indeed are so much like that woman in today’s Gospel with whatever our sin be, and even more like those others who were trying to stone her. It was ultimately our sins that formed the nails which hammered Christ to the tree. We killed him. We’re murderers. Those same judgmental pharisees were at the Cross taunting him, 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!” As we get ready to receive the body that was nailed to that Cross and have that blood come down from his five wounds into this chalice, may we truly run to God to forgive our sins, to help us to recognize just how merciful he has been with us, and to bring that joy of the reality of the forgiveness of sins out to those caught in the grip of sin, so that they might come to the Lord and finally live.