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5th Sunday of Lent

April 7, 2019

Fr. Joseph Jacobi


Caught-brought-made to stand there. Caught-brought-made to stand there. These are verbs of power and control and dominance. What the Pharisees and the scribes are about is finding people in sin and holding them there. In particular, the picture of the woman “made to stand in the middle” conveys this holding action.

They are staring at her. The stare is the special tool of the self-righteous. The stare turns the person being stared at into an object, holding them in the mistake in which they have been caught. Jesus never stares at people—he gazes at them with wonder and merciful love.

The scribes and the Pharisees also want to trap Jesus so that they can hold him in sin. That’s what they do, their “modus-operandi.” The Pharisees and scribes hold people in sin for a living, so they ask Jesus a tricky question to trap him.

But their deceitful question gives Jesus the raw material for his response. Moses/stones/the-very-act-of-adultery stirs up the founding events of Israel in the desert. The question which the scribes and the Pharisees use to try and trap Jesus gives him an opportunity to reveal the God of forgiveness and mercy who is at the heart of the Law.

Jesus does not respond at first to their question about whether this adulterous woman deserves to be stoned to death. Instead he bends down to write on the ground with his finger.

People get all caught up in trying to guess what Jesus wrote, when that is not really the important point. Rather, the important point is he writes on ground hard as rock with his finger, calling to mind the almighty God on Mt. Sinai using his finger to write on stone the 10 commandments. The other important detail is that Jesus does this twice. He writes on the ground 2 times, calling to mind the foundational event in the history of God’s chosen people, when God wedded himself to Israel by giving them the 10 commandments on 2 separate occasions.

When Moses brings the 2 tablets of the commandments down the mountain the first time, he catches the people in the very act of adultery, worshipping a golden calf. So soon after being freed from slavery in Egypt by God’s mighty deeds, & experiencing the Red-Sea-rescue, they have turned away from God to worship an idol. In his anger, Moses smashes the 2 tablets of the 10 commandments, Then later Moses goes back up the mountain with a new set of stone tablets for God to use.

But before God stretches out his finger to etch again into stone the law, he tells Moses who He is: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness.” (Exodus 34:6) The God who is the giver of the Law is patient, kind, and always faithful.

The history of God’s relationship with the people whom he weds by this covenant is that time and time again they will break the covenant and will be unfaithful. But God will remain faithful, forgiving adulterous Israel over and over again, and calling them back to His side.

It is very significant that Jesus’ answer (“Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone”) is given between the two times he writes on the stone-hard ground with his finger. For just as God had revealed to Moses who He is between the 1st and 2nd giving of the commandments, so Jesus reveals who the people are to be for each other. FORGIVING! Forgiving as God is forgiving.

There are no sinless ones. Israel herself is only alive because God has forgiven her many adulteries. No one can cast the first stone for everyone lives by the grace of a forgiving God. Holding people in their sins while holding yourself innocent is delusional. The question is not the condemnation of adultery but the continuing blindness of people to the universal necessity of forgiveness. This is the heart of the Law of Moses— it reveals that all are sinners, all have fallen short of the glory of God, and all are in need of the forgiveness of God.

The woman, who alone stays by Jesus’ side, experiences this forgiveness and begins life anew. She is sent by Jesus into a new life—he does not hold her in her sin, but simply invites her to go and sin no more. She who had been standing on the very precipice of death is given new life.

As Jesus is, so we are to be toward each other, with his help—forgiving to set others free. Forgiving for life, instead of condemning to death.

The God of second chances, by his forgiveness, gives us a new lease on life. The God who is a Merciful Father grants us his wayward sons and daughters forgiveness, raising us from the death of sin to new life. The God who Jesus reveals is a God who frees us from sin and gives us a fresh start.

Jesus is accused over and over again by the self-righteous ones of eating with sinners. The self-righteous, who define others by their sin and hold them in their sin, cannot see others beyond their sin. Jesus sees the person beneath the sin, sees that a human being is always more than their greatest sin, and sets them free to grow into their dignity as a son or daughter of God.

St. Paul experiences this freeing forgiveness of the Risen Jesus, even though he is the greatest of sinners. Paul comes to know Christ Jesus as the one who sets him free from his sinful past as a persecutor of Jesus and his followers. Paul knows Jesus as the one who invites him to forget what lies behind, who does not hold him in his sin, but invites him into a new life, and a future full of hope and new life. So, Paul counts everything else as rubbish when compared to knowing Christ Jesus and the power of his death and resurrection, which has set Paul free.

We are invited to be “forgiving for life” instead of condemning and being condemned to death. With Jesus’ help we are invited to offer the gift of forgiveness which sets others free.

Holding people in their sin is not the “special gift” of the scribes and the Pharisees. Holding people in their mistakes is a popular pastime. Few can resist it—it is an all too common procedure. In fact, it is so common it is taken for granted. We do not consciously choose to do it, we just mindlessly engage in it. We read an obituary of someone we know well and fill in the blanks with all the sins they committed in their lifetime. We unreflectively remark that she is doing quite well for an ex-addict, thereby using addiction as the permanent reference point for her life. Prison sentences are never over.

Instead of forgiving for life, we hold others in their sin and kill any chance they have for a new life. A spouse holds their spouse in the sin of an affair forever, not forgiving the adulterous spouse, but punishing the one who has sinned over and over again.

But when we hold people in their sins, it affects not only them but us, because we hold onto their sin and the hurt it caused us. This becomes like stones in our soul, slowly crushing the life out of us. We live in the past, giving over our present peace and future happiness to the one who has hurt us. When we forgive, with the Lord’s help, we are set free for life.