Homily for 5th Sunday of Lent 2007
There is an interesting example in the first reading today (Isaiah43:16-21) about how the Word of God needs to be reinterpreted for its contemporary listeners. This part of the Prophet Isaiah is addressed to people of Israel captive in Babylon far from Jerusalem. First of all he outlines that fundamental experience of the people of old with God's redemptive act in bringing them out of slavery in Egypt to the promised land. The recalling of those wonderful deeds of God is, if you like, the creed of Israel. It proclaims their faith in God who hears the cry of the poor. The story of what God has done is told again and again in the bible.
Then Isaiah goes on to say almost the opposite. "No need to recall the past!" he says. Why? It is because God is now going to do something completely new. It is as though God is saying, If you thought what I did in the past was great, you have not seen anything yet!
Paul is making the same point in the Second Reading (Phil 3:8-14). He waxes eloquent in his passionate claim that everything that he was, everything he believed as a devout Jew is as rubbish compared to wonder of knowing Christ Jesus his Lord. Neither he nor Isaiah are saying that the Jewish faith is rubbish. Far from it. They are saying that what God is doing now is so wonderful that anything else pales into insignificance compared to it.
All this is looking forward to Easter for us. Jesus is above all that totally new encounter with God for us. An encounter which is a saving one. God is again hearing the cry of the poor. We see that played out in the Gospel of John we read today (John 8:1-11). Jesus, who will soon in John's Godpel declare himself to be the "light of the world", arrives at the Temple at daybreak, to teach. The outer courtyard of the Temple was a public place where scribes and teachers would gather with their students. Jesus, too, came there to teach. Into this area the adulterous woman is brought. But it is not she who is on trial here. It is Jesus. She but a pawn in the scheming of the scribes and Pharisees. They are still in the dark even though dawn has come.
Jesus does not repudiate the Law he looks beyond it. When challenged by the scribes and Pharisees Jesus neither condemns nor condones the woman's behaviour. He does not accept his opponents' challenge. They want him to say where he stands on the Law of Moses. If Jesus condemns her he is on their side and there is nothing new happening here. Everything continues as before. If he condones her he violates the Law and challenges their authority.
So Jesus invites the scribes and Pharisees to keep the Law by stoning her. But only if they are without sin. There is the rub. We are all deserving of stoning really. If God kept an account of all our faults "who would survive" as Psalm 129 says. But only God can judge the heart. Again and again in the Gospels we find Jesus saying such things as, "Do not judge and you will not be judged" (Matthew 7:1). We may know for certain the guilt of a person judging by witnessing their actions. We can catch a man and a woman in the very act of adultery as here. Yet we are taught by Jesus, do not judge. But we do it all the time. We judge by appearance, behaviour, and whatever. Sometimes we do need to make judgements about people. For example, whether they are suitable for a particular job or whether they pose a risk to others. But what we cannot do is judge their moral status before God. Only God can see a person's heart.
The thing is when we judge a person guilty we do not help them. We do not redeem them. We do not free them. We are simply confirming them in their sinful state. That is not what Jesus does. He freed the woman from the accusations of the Pharisees. He freed her from the accusing stares of the crowd. He frees her to return to her community and begin again. There is another "Exodus" happening here. It can happen in us too. We can help it happen in others as well.
Lent ends next week with God's people gathering at Easter. It ends with the risen Jesus gathering us who have been enslaved, or entombed, in our frailty, in our sin, around the table once again.