Fifth Sunday of Lent (Cycle C)
Readings: Is 43: 16-21; Philippians 3: 8-14; John 8: 1-11.
The Gospel is always good news, a novelty, a message of salvation for man. The Gospel proclaims that God has come to save and not to condemn. The Lord never offers two alternatives or ways to man: salvation or damnation, but only salvation. Man, because of his freedom, can reject the offer of grace and forgiveness that God gives us; in that sense we can choose our own condemnation. Salvation is a work of God, damnation is of man. Jesus also tells us that he did not come to condemn but to save, to give his life for us (cf. Jn 3: 17).
The first reading (cf., Isaiah 43: 16-21) invites us not to remain stuck in the past, we must rediscover the novelty that commits us to the future: “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.”(Is 43: 18-19). This does not mean, obviously, that the past has no value; but we cannot live on nostalgia, or just indulging in the great works to which others were witnesses; neither can we live bemoaning what we did wrong, our failures, carrying the weight of our sins. The believer must look at the present and the future to discover there the new challenges of faith, the new presence of the Lord, the new roads he should walk.
In the second reading (cf, Phil 3: 8-14) the apostle Paul speaks of his own experience, what it meant for him to discover Christ, having lived confidently in the security of the old law and the alleged guarantee of their good works. His conclusion is clear: the only security comes from Christ, not good works, not the rigorous practice of law. Keep in mind that this is said precisely by someone who had enough credentials of having been a ‘faithful observer of the law’. The encounter with Christ radically changed his way of thinking, his life, and his projects. That meeting marked a before and after. Paul had to let go of all that past of ‘faithful observance’, abandoning all its securities. He now no longer believes in his own possibilities, his acquired merits; suddenly he felt empty-handed. Conversion passes through the recognition of one’s own need, a true act of humility that contrasts with the attitude of those who feel deserving of God for having ‘fulfilled the law’. The purpose of Paul, after his conversion, is to live in Christ, everything else is subordinate to that: “I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus as my Lord.” (Phil 3, 4). It must also be noted that while it is true that we are saved by our faith in Christ and not by our good works, that faith, if it is authentic, leads necessarily to performing good deeds. There is no opposition between faith and works. Hence the Apostle is aware of the need for personal effort to achieve the goal.
Paul likens the effort of Christian life with what makes an athlete: he is permanently in training; he deprives himself of many things in order to win the race. Unlike the athlete whose efforts are aimed at winning a medal or crown that fades, the goal for the Christian is Christ. When Paul is aware that he is near the end of his life, and that he is about to be sacrificed, he can say with satisfaction: “I have fought the good fight, I have reached the finish line in the race, I have kept the faith. And from now on the crown of righteousness awaits me … “(2 Timothy 4: 7-8). The apostle Peter also speaks of that crown of glory to which we Christians should aspire: “When the Chief Shepherd appears, you will receive the crown of glory that never fades” (1 Pt 5: 4). Christ is our true hope, the reason for our sacrifices and privations.
The Gospel (cf. Jn 8: 1-11) gives us the well-known passage of the adulterous woman. This story highlights an apparent contradiction between justice (in the sense of law enforcement) and divine mercy. Scripture tells us that God does not want the sinner to die but be converted and live (cf. Ez 18, 23, 33, 11). God did not send his son to condemn the world but to save it (cf. Jn 3: 17). The scribes and Pharisees, as indicated by the same Gospel passage of this Sunday, intended to test Jesus to have something to accuse him of, i.e. they are not interested in the truth, in solving a problem of conscience or the proper application of the law. If Jesus said that the law had to be complied with by stoning the adulterous woman, then his message of love and forgiveness would be questioned; if, however, he had said she had to be forgiven, they would then have accused him of promoting the breach of the law. Jesus met this dilemma and skillfully turned the questioners into the questioned ones: “He who is without sin cast the first stone” (John 8: 7). The Gospel tells us that one by one the accusers were slipping away; no one dared to be considered just enough to apply the law; Jesus probably wrote on the sand the sins of those accusers, and no one wanted to be revealed.
When the scribes and Pharisees left, Jesus entered into a short dialogue with the sinful woman; many words are not necessary. Jesus does not throw a reprimand against her reproaching her for her misconduct, the immorality of her actions and the pains of hell of which she may have been worthy (as some confessors usually do). Jesus has an attitude of compassion toward the sinful woman. Someone might ask, Jesus being the just one, the saint par excellence, why did he not exercise the ‘right’ to cast the first stone against the sinful woman? No one could have blamed him for this attitude as it was backed by the law of Moses authorizing stoning adulterers. Jesus goes beyond the law and seeks its true spirit. He tells us that the law is at the service of man, not the other way around.
Mercy outranks justice. Scripture itself tells us that “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and rich in mercy […] he does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities” (Ps 102, 8.10). No one can justify himself before the Lord. Our relationship with God cannot be measured in terms of distributive justice, in such a case we would always come out losing. The Psalmist tells us: “If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt, who would survive? But with you is found forgiveness … “(Ps 129, 3.4).”The Lord is mercy and fullness of redemption and He shall redeem Israel from all its crimes” (Ps 129: 7-8). In that vein, Jesus incarnates mercy and forgiveness. Jesus is questioned for meeting with sinners, publicans, prostitutes. This, however, does not mean any kind of condescension toward sin. God loves the sinner but hates the sin. To the adulteress he says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more “(John 8, 11). The need for personal responsibility is therefore clear as is the need to make an effort to get out of any situation of sin.
There are people who misunderstand God’s mercy and misuse of the sacrament of reconciliation, as if it sufficed to confess sins without a real purpose of amendment. The words of Jesus: “sin no more” clearly express the requirement of permanent conversion. The believer, aided by grace, can lead a life in keeping with the demands of the Gospel. We all need a good dose of asceticism, personal effort and sacrifice, in order to adequately respond to the vocation to which we are called.