Life on the Chrism Trail

Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

April 3, 2022
Saint Patrick Cathedral
Fort Worth, Texas

Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126:1-2,2-3, 4-5, 6
Philippians 3:8-14
John 8:1-11

Today’s reading from the Gospel of John begins with Jesus returning from the Mount of Olives, the place where He will go on to undergo the agony in the garden. The scribes and Pharisees drag a woman caught in adultery before Him. In the case of women, the Law prescribed the death penalty for the sin of adultery, but it is not clear as to what was the prescribed punishment for adultery in the case of men. These leaders were trying to find a way to trap and condemn Jesus, and this situation looked to be an opportunity for them to execute their plan. Stoning the woman would violate Roman law and releasing her would oppose the Law of Moses. If Jesus were to respond in either way, His words and action would be instrumental to their plotting to cancel out Jesus’ credibility even to the point of killing Him.

Their accusation of the woman caught in adultery was also an attempt to falsely accuse Jesus out of adherence to their own religious ideology. The hypocritical accusers pretend to entrust the judgment of this poor woman to Jesus, but it is Jesus Himself whom they wish to accuse and to judge. Their pretense displayed before Jesus brings to mind the dialogue between Adam and God in the Garden of Eden where Adam, fraught with shame, blasphemously and with self-justification accuses God for his own sin of collusion with Eve, “The woman whom you put here with me — she gave me fruit from the tree, so I ate it.”

Jesus’ response to her accusers is revelatory and disconcerting to them; He stoops over and begins to write on the ground. When the scribes and Pharisees persist, he subtly accuses the accusers by inviting the one who is without sin to throw the first stone. Then He returns to His writing. The accusers silently slip away, remembering their own sins and hypocrisy. It is not so much Jesus who is accusing them but rather it is their own sins that cast judgment on them in accord with the Law of Moses. In their hardness of heart they refuse to repent and to recognize Jesus for who He truly is, the Christ and the Son of God. In his Commentary on the Gospel of John, Saint Augustine offers the insight that in writing upon the ground, Jesus is acting as the Divine Legislator because this gesture recalls the Old Testament scene of God writing the Ten Commandments with His finger on the tablets of stone on Mount Sinai (cf. Commentary on John’s Gospel, 33,5). This gesture of Jesus in the Gospel manifests Jesus’ true nature as God who is Truth Himself and both the source of justice and of mercy.

Jesus’ gentleness and compassion toward the distraught and humiliated woman is one of the most tender moments in the entire Gospel. The sin of this woman and her partner had done damage both to themselves and to their spouses and families. Sin fractures relationships that should be ordered to love, especially the relationship we have with God. Her sadness was overwhelming, and she knew she deserved punishment. She stood there waiting, unable to move, paralyzed by shame. When Jesus looked at her, he asked simply: “Where did they all go? Has no one condemned you?”  Then instead of condemning this woman in accord with the Old Covenant, He fulfills the Old Covenant; He releases her from sin and offers her the authentic hope and grace possible only in the New and Eternal Covenant, “to go and sin no more.”

The conversion of the woman is subtle, and our understanding of it is key to our own Lenten journeys of conversion. In her encounter with Jesus and only through the grace that He offers her, the woman moves from regret at having her sin exposed to authentic contrition for her sins with true repentance. It is precisely this conversion born of grace that enables Saint Paul to write the words that we have heard in today’s second reading: “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.” This grace enables each of us to turn away from sin and to remain faithful to the Gospel, not simply to desire release from our feelings of guilt and regret while maintaining attachment to our sinful practices in word, thought, and actions. This grace offers us the honest humility not to judge and condemn our neighbor and to be inflexible with sin, starting with our own.

Jesus offers this woman caught in adultery the gift of confidence through His forgiveness of her sins. We desire to receive what He offered her and what she accepted: the freedom that comes from conversion mercifully extended to us in the Truth. This is the fruit of a good sacramental confession that does not simply “expunge our record” but that gives us the grace to turn away from the false allure of sin not only in our feelings but more importantly in our actions. As Pope Benedict XVI observed, “God wants only goodness and life for us; He provides for the health of our soul through His ministers, delivering us from evil with the Sacrament of Reconciliation, so that no one may be lost but all may have the opportunity to convert.”

If we choose to refuse this grace, we can only slink away in silence and shame like the scribes and Pharisees, held hostage by the extortion of the devil and discouraged by the false notion that sin is inevitable and that we are not free to do otherwise. So, we have no other hopeful alternative than to take seriously the challenge that Jesus gives to the scribes and Pharisees and to do as the woman in the Gospel does and respond in gratitude born of the love that only Christ offers.

As we enter these final days of Lent, if we have not done so we should seek out the ordinary means of this grace and take the time to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation and make a good confession in which we offer an expression of our sorrow for offending God instead of offering a recitation of a list of rules that we have violated. Then, repentant of our sins and filled with gratitude and the hope of mercy, we can truly make our sincere prayer the proclamation of the prophet Isaiah we heard in our first reading, “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new!” Heeding those same words of the Prophet, we offer now the New and Eternal Covenant of His reconciling sacrifice on the cross, His unconditional love made present in the Eucharist.

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