•Isaiah 43:16-21 • Philippians 3:8-14 • John 8:1-11•
Weekly Scripture Readings: Fifth Sunday in Lent
To print a PDF of the homily, click HERE.
Seamus Heaney, a highly regarded Irish poet was profoundly troubled and inspired by the terrible violence of his home-land. In my limited reading of his work, I hear him engaging with the human tragedy of great hurts, great harms and loss. In his poem “The Cure of Troy” he wrote…”Human beings suffer, they torture one another, they get hurt and get hard. No poem or play or song can fully right a wrong inflicted or endured.”
Jesus of Nazareth was shaped and formed by the spirituality of the people with whom he lived. The spirituality of most Jews, not all of course, but most, was shaped and formed by Torah. In its appeals for obedience and loyalty to Yahweh, the Hebrew book of Deuteronomy established a broad range of laws including laws about sexual relations. Among those laws was the decree that men or women caught in adultery were to be “stoned.” A dreadful, violent law!
Our world today remains scarred by violence. We often hear of mass acts of violence perpetrated by individuals and groups. In today’s gospel “the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees” are setting up a situation of violence. They “brought a woman caught in adultery” into the center of a crowd of men Jesus is teaching.
There is a trap being set here. Their intent is violent — to kill her “by stoning” and to damage the reputation of Jesus. Roman law of the time deprived Jews of the right to carry out the death penalty. So Jesus must reject either the law of Moses or the authority of Rome. In addition we all know it takes two to commit adultery!! This incident portrays the common, condescending attitude towards women in that male dominated society.
So in this situation Jesus is faced with several issues that conflict with the spirituality he proclaimed and lived. First there is the use of violence. Then there is the human tendency to judge the behavior of others. And of equal importance there is the common attitude and treatment of women as less than human.
I wish we did, but we do not and will never know what Jesus wrote on the ground. It probably is not important. Jesus knew the Law. He also understood its intent. His actions and a few spoken words are all he needed as he responds to all three issues.
He rejects the use of violence. “I do not condemn you. Go and honor the goodness within you.” In the face of violence he is kind, gentle and loving.
We have to make value judgments, but that is not the same as judging the lives and motives of others. Jesus simply challenges those accusing her to judge their own lives and not pass judgment on others.
He also sets right the condescending and dismissive attitudes toward women. In both his words and actions he affirms the woman’s dignity as a human being and a child of God. He is telling her, “I love you.”
The author of John’s gospel is cleverly showing us that Jesus “was doing something new.” He never returned evil for evil. He was not threatened by oppressive power. He never hated or condemned anyone.
We ”human beings suffer, torture one another, get hurt and get hard. No poem or play or song can fully right a wrong inflicted or endured.” (Seamus Heaney) In this gospel text Jesus models for us what it is to be fully alive and fully human. This text challenges us to learn that violence is never a legitimate response to evil. It challenges us to respect others, or as Frances of Rome so plainly reminded us: “who am I to judge?” It challenges us to see the goodness and beauty in others that they do not see in self. When we live this way, we continue “the new thing Jesus was doing” and engage in the process of becoming more fully alive and more fully human.