5th Sunday of Lent Year C
Today, twenty five years ago, a civil war erupted in Rwanda between the Patriotic Front rebel group and government soldiers. Hundreds of thousands were slaughtered in the months that followed. The seventy-second session of the 77th meeting of the UN General Assembly in 2018 designated 7th April as the International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. Let us pray for this country that justice and peace may always prevail in the hearts of its inhabitants and the entire country.
The culture of death that befell this country at that time is what Jesus is fighting against in our Gospel reading of today. We therefore pray that they may forget their past and believe in God’s providence as Isaiah puts it in the first reading.
Isaiah writes to the Israelites some centuries after God had made a way through the Red Sea. He actually writes to their descendants who due to their disobedience found themselves in exile in Babylon. It was in that situation, according to today’s first reading, that the prophet assured them that the God of their ancestors will again make a way for them and therefore there is no need to recall the past, no need to think about what was done before. That is water under the bridge.
This is a message for us today that our past should not tie us form achieving what God has in store for us. Sometimes we remain tied in the past and realize that we cannot move. Isaiah calls us today to disengage from a negative past which stops us from achieving God’s promises. A negative past can only promise us resentment, depression, revenge and despair among many other negative consequences. Whether someone mistreated us or we mistreated, it comes a time when we have to forgive. We could have borne false witness against others which continues to haunt us. God is promising us that He will forget that past. He only calls us to sincere repentance.
The second reading tells us about Paul who was looking for the way to a certain destination. And what destination was Paul looking forward to? Heaven! And what path or way was he walking on? He had chosen the path of the Law of Moses. This was exactly the path which did not help the woman caught in adultery. Paul initially thought the path of the Law would lead him to heaven – to the extent that he persecuted Christians who were teaching about another way to heaven. But when Paul experienced Christ, and got to know that He is “the way, the truth and the life; and no one goes to the Father [in heaven] except through” Christ (John 14:6), he exclaimed: “All I want is to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and to share His sufferings” (Phil. 3:10). Christ therefore becomes the way to the destination, Heaven.
And in the Gospel, What did Jesus REALLY write on the ground when he confronted the adulterous woman in John 8 or even why did he write on the floor?
According to the Jewish religious custom, whenever someone was caught in adultery, both the man and the woman (Leviticus 20:10) would be brought to the Nicanor temple gates and accused. If witnesses could be gathered to confirm that adultery had indeed been committed, then there was a certain ceremony that would be done in order to bring judgment. However, in this instance they only brought the woman. This was a violation of the Oral Law of God which the Pharisees and the Scribes purported to defend.
Secondly, still according to the custom, the priest was required to stoop down and write the law that had been broken, along with the names of the accused in the dust of the floor of the Temple as long as the marks were not permanent. Two eyewitnesses had to be present. This is what Jesus did and probably what he wrote down. By doing this, Jesus wanted to show these accusers that they were not keeping the law which they pretended to be zealously guarding. Jesus succeeded first in showing them that they ignored the law by bringing the woman only (May be the man bribed his way out).
As a continuation of the custom, every year on Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement), the High Priest, would immerse up to 11 times in a baptismal tank in order to be ceremonially cleansed. To end the day and announce to everyone the party was over (and it was time to go home), the High Priest would come out and quote this verse:
O LORD, the hope of Israel, all that forsake thee shall be ashamed, and they that depart from me shall be written in the earth, because they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living waters (Jeremiah 17:13). Any religious Jewish man had heard this verse quoted by the High Priest every year since he was 12 years old. By writing their names on the floor, Jesus brought this prophesy to fulfilment but they could not stand the embarrassment. They walked away.
Writing their names on the earth can carry double symbolism: one, that if they do not repent, they shall perish just the way that dust perishes when trampled upon or blown by the wind; and secondly, if they repent, their sins will be wiped and forgotten just the way the dust is blown by the wind. They chose the former.
So Jesus gave them a chance -- they could have been just embarrassed and then repented before the LORD. But instead they refused to repent, rejected the Messiah, and in turn had their names written in the dust. This passage in Jeremiah is a Messianic prophecy of what Jesus would do when He came. In this passage in John, we see Jesus fulfill the prophecy.
They heard the voice of God in their conscience, the Spirit of God bringing to their remembrance all the times they heard the High Priest quote the verse. Instead of receiving the conviction and repenting, they departed from Him (just as it was prophesied!). They left from the eldest to the youngest, the older having heard the verse quoted more often than the young.
And now back to the woman.
What motivated this her to commit adultery yet she knew it was against God’s laws and punishable by death. What was her life like?
Young girls were betrothed and married by the ages of 12 or 13, usually to an older man. Not of her choice though.
What must she have been feeling then? Humiliation, terror, shame among other feelings. This was the same shame Adam and Eve felt when they ate the fruit.
What would have driven her to the point that she would risk her life to be with a man in an illicit affair? Was her husband abusive? Did she feel trapped? Was she desperately unhappy? Was she depressed? We can find ourselves in these situations and so driven to have suicidal tendencies as a result.
What did Jesus see in those tear-stained eyes? Probably fear, condemnation, dejection, hopelessness, desperation, shame? May be the man that she had the affair with was the one person she could talk to. Maybe he told her she was beautiful after not being told so for a quite long time or even never having been told so. Maybe he told her he loved her and he was sorry she had to be forced to marry someone she didn’t love. May be he was empathic.
Now this does not excuse her from responsibility to the sin she committed. She had broken the Law of Moses and the consequence for adultery was stoning. Jesus knew that. The leaders caught her, dragged her into the Temple grounds where Jesus was teaching. She was probably half-dressed, ashamed and terrified.
So why did Jesus respond to this woman with such compassion and forgiveness?
Jesus knew that those trapped in even the worst sins were not hopeless. They could be redeemed. She was wounded but needed healing. She needed love and forgiveness, not condemnation through the law. Jesus offered it.
As for the religious leaders: the Scribes and the Pharisees, Jesus didn’t look or act like the Messiah they expected. Although Christ wanted them to repent, they had become filled with hypocrisy, pride and prejudice. They were pretenders who thought that if they were just smart enough, worked hard enough, prayed hard enough, that somehow they would earn their way into Paradise.
On the other hand, the woman had given up. She thought she was hopelessly trapped in a cycle of sin. She thought God could never love her. God could never forgive her.
Both the woman and her accusers needed forgiveness, restoration and hope. Jesus offered all three. But only the woman received.
- Only God has the right to condemn because he is sinless. He is therefore to ready to forgive when we humble ourselves before him.
- We should never bend the law to justify our waywardness or wickedness. The Pharisees and the Scribes did it to trap Jesus but instead, he trapped them.
- Never underestimate the power of God to speak in your conscience. God spoke in the conscience of the religious leaders who then left instead of repenting.
- Never be quick to judge before you look at the other side of the story (a person of one book is dangerous). The social media in our contemporary world is awash with this type of judgment without looking at what the accused has to say.
- Love your neighbor as yourself meaning judge others according to how you want them to judge you.
- God does not condone sin although he loves the sinner