FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT YEAR C
Readings: Isa. 43:16-21, Phil 3:8-14, John 8:1-11
A story was told of a man that was caught stealing, ands he was brought before the king, who gave orders that he be hanged. However, as he was being led to the gallows, the man told the governor that he knew a wonderful secret. He claimed that he could plant the seed of an apple and make it bear fruit overnight. He said he was willing to reveal the secret to the king.
The execution was halted, and the man was brought back before the king. There the man dug a hole in the ground, and taking an apple seed said, ‘Your Majesty, the seed must be planted by a person who has never taken anything that didn’t belong to him. I being a thief cannot do it.’ Then turning to one of the king’s officials he said, ‘Maybe you would like to plant it.’
But the official refused, saying, ‘In my younger days I kept something that didn’t belong to me.’ Then the man turned to the king’s treasurer and said, ‘Well then, maybe you would like to plant it.’ But the treasurer too refused, saying, ‘Over the years I’ve handled a lot of money. Now and again I might have kept a little for myself.’
And so it went on. Finally there was only the king left. Turning to him the man said, ‘Perhaps your Majesty would do the honour of planting the seed.’ But the king said, ‘I’m ashamed to say it, but once I kept a watch that belonged to my father.’
Then the thief said, ‘All of you are great and powerful people and want for nothing. Yet none of you can plant the seed, whilst I who have stolen a little because I was starving am about to be hanged.’
The king pardoned him. That story would have ended very differently if the king had not been prepared to listen. Instead, thanks to his patience and to the imagination of the condemned man, no one died and all learned a salutary lesson.
The foregoing story is similar to the story of our gospel passage about the woman caught in the act of adultery. The story, if not carefully interpreted may seem to play down on sin. It portrays sin as generally soft and seems to trivialise the sin of adultery in particular. Rather according to Bishop Baron, “The story displays our constant temptation to use knowledge of God’s law to hurt others, not to liberate them.”
Adultery is seriously frowned at by the Law of Moses. There are two commandments in the Decalogue on adultery. The first says in the negative, “You shall not commit adultery” (Exo. 20:14) and the second says, “You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife” (Exo. 20:17). Furthermore, in (Lev. 20:10) it says, “If a man commits adultery with his neighbour’s wife, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.”
From the biblical quotes just mentioned, is Jesus indifferent to sin? No! He cannot be. However, it is his business to save sinners. He came in search of the lost sheep. And here is one of them. He says to her: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and do not sin again” (John 8:11). Sin is sin. “All unrighteousness is sin” (1John 5:17). Adultery is a mortal sin that ruins a marital union and brings instability in a home. But Jesus is merciful to sinners. He does not condemn those who siined and who are repentant. “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:17).
According to Fr. Cantalamessa, “Jesus does not intend to say with his gesture that adultery is not a sin or that it is a small thing. There is an explicit, even if delicate, condemnation of adultery in the words addressed to the woman at the end of the scene: ‘Go and do not sin again.’ Jesus does not intend to approve the deed of the woman; his intention is rather to condemn the attitude of those who are always ready to look for and denounce the sin of others.” The pot thinks that it is clean when it calls the kettle black.
There is justice in the expression “Go and do not sin again.” The justice of God is different from the justice of humankind. God’s justice is redemptive while that of man is retributive. God’s justice is curative, constructive and transformative but man’s justice is punitive and hardens sinners. God’s justice softens sinners to repent and be overshadowed by mercy.
Last Sunday we reflected on the story of the Prodigal son, and through it we refreshed our minds and hearts about the attitude of God towards sinners. Today the emphasis is on the attitude of people towards sinners. The story of the adulterous woman presents two categories of sinners. The bad sinner in need of mercy, i.e. the adulterous woman and the “good” sinners i.e. the Scribes and Pharisees who claim to be sinless and blameless. For both parties, Jesus did not condemn them but led the woman to experience the unmerited favours of God’s mercy and forgiveness and He also led the Scribes and Pharisees to recognise their sinfulness.
The scribes and the Pharisees represent many of us who are fond of judging and condemning sinners. Many of us are always ready with our stones to throw at others. We throw stones at others when we find pleasure in seeking out and publicising the mistakes of others. We do that so well when we gossip, when we back bite, when “we scapegoat, when we blame and when we convince ourselves that we’re just following the divine law in pointing out other people’s problems. But then enters Jesus, who affirms that the law’s primary purpose is to make us humble, to draw us to higher attainment. Without denigrating the law in the least, Jesus reaches out in mercy in order to bring sinners back to life.
Today’s celebration speaks to us about the degree of God’s mercy. There is a saying that God is short sighted and low in memory when it comes to sin. He does not remember our past. Therefore, He says in the first reading: “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old” (Isa. 43:18). Jesus did not focus on the past sins of the adulterous woman. He dismisses her past and tells her to move on: “Go and do not sin again.”
Yes sin is terrible but the human person is more than sin. The Law is good but the Law is made for man and not man for the Law. Life is more precious than the Law. Jesus says that He did not come to abolish the Law but to fulfil it (Matt.5:17). He said love was the fulfilment of the Law, love of God and love of neighbour. He identified the neighbour as one in need. Here is an adulterous woman, a bad but repentant sinner in need of MERCY.
On the other hand, the story teaches us how to seek forgiveness in the spirit of the adulterous woman and how to give forgiveness that was lacking in the Scribes and the Pharisees. This story is an illustration of that part of the Lord’s Prayer that we say daily, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We are sinners in need of God’s mercy.
This story says that mercy and justice can embrace. Jesus mercifully says to the woman “Go” and for justice sake says “and do not sin again.” The second reading presents St. Paul who experienced an embrace of mercy and justice. He was a strict Pharisee but immediately he embraced mercy and justice, he gained Christ and righteousness. Anyway, Paul was able to do so because he was open and ready to abandon his old way of life. Many of us are rigid in maintaining our old ways of doing things. For instance, it is not easy to imbibe Jesus’ way of thinking. We see it as too new, too scandalous, too different and for the weak minds. We would find it joyful to see a criminal hurt, condemned even if for an instant. Yet such feelings are not compatible with the Christian life. We are sometimes sadistic as we derive joy to inflict inhuman treatment on sinners. Note somebody who has sinned is already in pains. Instead of us to liberate the person we add salt into injury.
Dear friends in Christ, we need to examine our attitudes toward sinners. Sin, strictly speaking is a colossal offence against God, the Church, the world, and oneself. However, God who is primarily offended is ever ready to supply mercy and cushion the effect of it. Then why are we who are equally guilt of sin pretending as if we are not in need of the cushion effect of sin from God. Hence St. Paul says, “We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23) and the wages of our sin is death, but the gift of eternal life keeps us living (Rom. 6:23). The psalmist beautifully captures our point as he says, “If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt, Lord, who would survive?” (Ps. 130:3).