Apr 7, 2019: 5th Sunday of Lent (C)

Introduction

The last Sunday of Lent ends on a note of wonder.  In the face of all the mighty works God has already performed for the sake of the people, God promises something even more magnificent, something beyond our imaginations.  There are no words to describe God’s goodness: we can only stand in awe and rejoice.  When we finally see the wonderful new things God has in store for us, we will realize that, by comparison, everything else is like rubbish.

1st Reading – Isaiah 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.

Today’s first reading is a proclamation of salvation.  Speaking through the prophet Isaiah, God describes the regeneration that God’s saving power will create.  The images employed are familiar, yet the passage contains a startling claim of newness.

Thus says the LORD,

The typical introduction for a prophecy, officially indicating that the words that follow belong to God, not the prophet.

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.

In order to assure the credibility of the claim he is about to make, the prophet reminds them just who it is that is speaking; namely, the God that snatched them from the bondage of Egypt and sustained them while in the wilderness.

Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not;

Israel’s faith was based on the liberating events of the past; its self-identity was rooted in the memory of its history. Therefore, being told to “remember not” must have been unsettling.  What could the prophet mean?

Most likely Isaiah was calling the people away from inordinate dependence on the past, which prevented them from seeing the astonishing new thing God was accomplishing before their very eyes. Faithful reverence for tradition is one thing, but insistent absorption in it is quite another.

See, I am doing something new!

God is doing a new redemptive act which we must see and recognize.  The people must put aside the past in order to receive God’s new graciousness.

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 new thing God desires to accomplish is a new creation, a new reality so overwhelming that the people of Israel could never have imagined it by themselves.

The people whom I formed for myself, that they might announce my praise.

The God who created the universe, who liberated them from slavery in Egypt, who gave them water and manna in the desert — surely this God can also fashion this defeated people into a new and vibrant race.  This is the promise of salvation.

2nd Reading – Philippians 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.

In today’s second reading, Paul extols the excellence of his relationship with Christ by contrasting it with the life he led and the values he championed before his conversion.

Brothers and sisters: I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.

By “everything,” Paul refers to all worldly enjoyments and outward privileges, all the things he valued before his conversion: anything that could stand in competition with Christ in his life.

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,

The Greek word translated here as “rubbish” is a vulgar Greek term (skýbalon); it might be better translated as “dung.” Paul flings away in disgust whatever interferes with “the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”

A strong expression, considering the zeal Paul once had in his former life as a Pharisee.  As noble as his former way of life may have been, it could not bring him to Christ.

not having any righteousness of my own based on the law

The goal of his former life was to be found blameless in the sight of God through observance of the 613 prescriptions of the Mosaic law.

but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God,

Laws set standards and determine whether those standards have been met; true righteousness depends on Christ.

In the Bible, righteousness is more a legal concept than a moral one; it is conferred on an individual, not earned.  The righteousness he previously sought by obeying the law now appears useless.

“Righteousness comes from faith, which means that it too is a gift of God. For since this righteousness belongs to God, it is an unmerited gift. And the gifts of God greatly exceed any achievements of our own zeal.” [Saint John Chrysostom (between A.D. 398-404), Homilies on the Epistle to the Philippians 12,3,7-9]

depending on faith to know him and the power of his resurrection by being conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

The union Paul sought with Christ was participation in his suffering, for he knew that that is was only through identification with Christ’s death that he would really know Christ and the power of his resurrection.

Note that he seeks participation in the resurrection and not merely unity with Christ in heaven.  Even though the souls of the faithfully departed are with Christ in heaven, their happiness will not be complete until the general resurrection of the dead at the last day, when soul and body will be glorified together.

“From faith comes our sharing in His sufferings. How? If we had not believed in Him, we would not be suffering with Him. If we had not believed that we will abide and reign with Him, we would not have endured these sufferings.” [Saint John Chrysostom (between A.D. 398-404), Homilies on the Epistle to the Philippians 12,3,10-11]

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,

Paul acknowledges that commitment to Christ does no itself result in perfect Christian maturity.  Profession of faith in Christ does not automatically transport one into a higher realm of being; identification with Christ is only possible by taking on the day-to-day struggle with the realities of life in a manner that conforms to the example set out by Christ.

since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus.

Possibly a reference to Paul’s conversion experience on the road to Damascus.

Brothers, I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession.

It is not our laying hold of Christ, but his laying hold of us, which is our happiness and salvation.

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.

Paul sees this struggle as ongoing: he has not yet taken hold of it; he has not attained it; he continues his pursuit; he strains forward.  The Greek for straining forward is epekteínomai, which indicates stretching intensely towards a specific focal point.

Paul is confident that he will achieve his goal not because of his own merit and righteousness, but because of the merit and righteousness of Jesus Christ. He rejects any thought of self-achievement.

Gospel – John 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.”

Today’s narrative about the woman caught in adultery is really about the conflict between Jesus and some of the religious authorities of the day.  It begins with the scribes and Pharisees testing Jesus about fulfilling an injunction of the law, and it ends with Jesus turning the tables on the ones who put him to the test.  The woman herself seems to be a mere pawn for Jesus’ challengers; however, he treats her with compassion.

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.

The outer court of the Temple was a public place.  Students frequently gathered there around their favorite rabbi or scribe to be instructed in the observance of the law.

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.

The large crowd was the perfect setting in which to use the adulterous woman to test Jesus.

Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.

Actually, the law required that both parties to the adultery be stoned (Deuteronomy 22:22-24).  If the woman was caught in the very act, why did they not bring in the man as well?  They seem to be more interested in trapping Jesus than in exacting justice according to the law.

So what do you say?”

The game they have chosen to play with Jesus is this: he has set himself up in the Temple as a teacher (didáskalos), so they invite him to decide a controversial point of law. However, the Romans had deprived the Jews of the right to carry out the death penalty in cases where their law required it (John 18:31). Jesus must decide whether to defy Jewish law or the Roman authorities.

There is no question about the woman’s guilt, only about the suitable sentence to be carried out.  If Jesus said she should be stoned as the law required, he would not only be defying Roman authority, he would be acting against his own teachings on mercy and compassion.  He would probably also alienate those in the community who already opposed this particular death sentence.

If he forgave the guilty woman, he would be disregarding Mosaic law and risked alienating those who interpreted the law more literally.  His opponents had carefully devised a complex situation that would trap him one way or the other.

Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.

This is the only passage in scripture where Jesus is said to have written anything. Patristic
authors suggest that Jesus was invoking Jeremiah 17:13: Lord, on whom Israel’s hope is
fixed, all who reject you will be inscribed in the dust, for they have rejected the source of living water, the Lord.

Saints Augustine and Jerome both suggest that Jesus wrote something that exposed the sins of the accusers. Or it could be no more than Jesus idly tracing figures on the ground to indicate disinterest in the proceedings.

What he may have written does not seem as important as his refusal to be caught in the web that had been spun for him.

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.”

In a capital case, the witnesses against the accused were to take the initiative in carrying
out the execution (Deuteronomy 17:7). Jesus asks them to consider whether their own
conscience proclaims them worthy to sit in judgment. Typically, Pharisees thought of
themselves as sinless, but Jesus had on other occasions made it clear that he did not
consider them so. If they threw the first stones and were arrested by the Romans, they
could not claim that they had acted on Jesus’ authority.

Jesus is aware of the woman’s need for forgiveness, as she is herself, but the scribes and Pharisees to not recognize theirs.

Jesus’ perfect mastery of the situation punctures the false dilemma: he has turned their test of integrity into a test of their own.

Again he bent down and wrote on the ground.

Why keep writing?  Out of consideration for their embarrassment and to give them the opportunity to recognize their own guilt.  Although their sins are as obvious to him as the woman’s, he does not publicly accuse them the way they accuse her.

In other words, Jesus still loves them, they still have a chance.

And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.

The elders are the wiser ones; they recognize that their trap has been reversed. If they stone her they have no one to blame but themselves and will be fully answerable to the Romans; if they don’t, they will have rejected the Law of Moses.

Realizing they had been thwarted, they departed in shame, one by one.  Jesus has outwitted them.

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?”  

The crowds seem to have dispersed as well, because the text states that Jesus is left alone with the woman.

She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.

Only now does Jesus act directly.  He treats her with the respect and compassion that he has always shown those who are open to him and his message of salvation.

Note that, as in many other cases, he disregards proper protocol by speaking in a public place to a woman who is a stranger to him and a known sinner.

He does not ignore her sin; he forgives it.

Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

This exhortation to turn away from sin is not an ultimatum, but a promise: Jesus endows her with a new identity and power.  The effect of this encounter will remain with her; her love for Christ will exceed her desire for sin.

Compassion and mercy have won out.

Connections and Themes

I am doing something new.  Throughout Lent we have reflected on the marvels God accomplished in the lives of the people: cutting a covenant with Abraham, leading the people out of bondage, revealing God’s own personal name, bringing them into a land bursting with life.  Now God says: You haven’t seen anything yet! What could possibly surpass what God has already done?

The first reading tells us that God is doing something new; in the gospel reading, that new thing appears before our eyes.  Here we see Jesus neither rejecting the law nor changing it.  Instead, he shows that the law, as good as it might be, serves something higher.  The first reading does not condemn the things of the past, it merely states that we should look beyond them to something new.  Neither does Jesus condemn the things of the past — he simply shows that the mercy and compassion of God exceed the authority of the law.

God has done something new; Jesus has turned the law on its head.  If he accomplished this with the woman, what can he do in our lives, or in the entire world?

Filled with joy. Once again we see that the readings of Lent are less concerned with mortification and penance than with divine graciousness and our response of joy.  We rejoice in our deliverance by God; we rejoice the in the abundant blessings bestowed upon us.  We rejoice that we have been called into God’s family; we rejoice that we have been forgiven our offenses.  Though we knew weeping in the past, we have been given the opportunity of living in the present and entering the future with rejoicing.  The cause of our joy cannot be emphasized enough — it has nothing to do with ourselves, our strengths, or our successes. The cause of our joy is our God who is so good, so generous, so forgiving!  God has done great things for us and we are glad indeed.

All else is rubbish.  Paul is not satisfied with the blessings of the past; in fact, he considers them rubbish when compared with knowledge of and unity with Christ.  Life with Christ is the new thing God has fashioned for us; it transforms us from people who are caught in sin to people who have been forgiven.

The suffering associated with Lent is the stripping away that must occur if we are to be made anew; it is the pangs of pain that precede the new birth. Penance that does not flow from this is pointless self-denial.  God is the one that creates something new; we are the one that are re-created.  The process of re-creation may be painful, but the new life that emerges causes us to rejoice.  When it comes to the wonders God can accomplish, we haven’t seen anything yet!

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