First Reading Isaiah 43:16–21 Psalm 126:1–6 Second Reading Philippians 3:8–14 Gospel John 8:1–11
When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we rejoiced.
Restore our fortunes, O Lord,
like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears
reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy,
carrying their sheaves.
Reading the Word
First Reading Isaiah 43:16–21
Thus says the Lord,
who makes a way in the sea,
a path in the mighty waters,
who brings out chariot and horse,
army and warrior;
they lie down, they cannot rise,
they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:
Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.
The wild animals will honor me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.
I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.
Gospel John 8:1–11
Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
Hearing the Word
“The Great Shifts”
The readings of the fifth Sunday of Lent present significant shifts in the understanding of salvation, righteousness and the use of religious authority. These shifts have great implications for the correct understanding of these fundamental aspects of Christian faith and life.
In the first reading the prophet Isaiah consoles the exiled Israelites by proclaiming approaching salvation and the end of their exile. The prophet begins by alluding to a great past salvific intervention of God, namely the destruction of the Egyptian army in the waters of the Red Sea. Here, water served as a tool of destruction of Israel’s oppressors. Surprisingly, the prophet then admonishes his audience “not to remember the former things, or consider the things of old”. Is Isaiah asking the people to forget how God saved them in the past? The reason for this admonition becomes clear as Isaiah speaks of God doing “a new thing”. First, God intends to transform the world by watering the wilderness and deserts, making them habitable for the wild animals, symbolized here by the jackals and the ostriches, who will honor God. Second, God intends to give his chosen people water to drink, so that they also might praise him alongside the animals. In this part of the oracle, water is not a destructive force but a life-giving agent giving rise to a new creation.
The role of water is key to observing the shift in the understanding of salvation occurring in this passage. Based on their past experiences, many Israelites might have hoped for salvation through the destruction of the oppressive forces, as it happened at the Red Sea. But God’s “new thing” means salvation in much broader and positive terms. This salvation, symbolized here by the gift of the life-giving water, consists in transformation rather than destruction, leading to the emergence of a new world order involving creation alongside the chosen people.
The second reading refers to a great shift that occurred in Paul’s life. His early life, described in great detail in Philippians 3:4-6, focused on the pursuit of righteousness through a zealous devotion to the observance of the Jewish law. Paul firmly and unquestionably believed that fulfillment of this law made him righteous before God. However, the experience of the Risen Christ utterly changed Paul’s understanding, as he realized that the law itself is insufficient for righteousness. Guided by this experience Paul renounced his earlier reliance on the law and focused entirely on Jesus, because he understood that righteousness comes only by faith in him. Paul understands faith in Jesus as “knowing him and gaining him”. This implies an intimate knowledge and union with the Risen Lord, which Paul hoped to achieve through sharing in Christ’s suffering and death in this life, with the firm hope of sharing also in Christ’s resurrection. This union with Christ, both in the present and in the future, became the sole focus and chief concern of Paul’s life. It was also an ongoing quest that defined his apostolic mission. All other concerns and even his earlier convictions regarding the law became like “rubbish” for Paul, as he realized that only through faith in Jesus can he be righteous before God, and reach eternal life in God’s presence. This shift in the understanding of righteousness changed Paul’s life forever and made him the most zealous apostle of the Risen Lord.
Today’s gospel passage contains the well-known story of the woman caught in adultery. However, the chief point in this story is the conflict between Jesus and the scribes and the Pharisees. These religious leaders publicly confronted Jesus in the Temple by bringing before him a woman caught in the act of committing adultery. They call for Jesus’ judgment on the matter and cite a Mosaic law which calls for the death penalty for both the man and the woman who commit such a transgression (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22-24). This, of course, raises a question about the man who must in this case have been caught together with the woman. His absence already suggests that the leaders’ motifs were insincere.
Asking Jesus for a verdict the leaders lay a trap for him. If he agrees with the law of Moses and calls for the stoning of the woman, the leaders would have a reason to accuse him before the Roman authorities who had the exclusive right to pass a death sentence. If Jesus sets the woman free, then they would accuse him of violating the law of Moses. Jesus was truly trapped.
Jesus found his way out of this trap by refusing to pass judgment. First, he bent down and silently wrote with his fingers on the ground, simply ignoring the challenge of the leaders. The suggestion that he began to write down the sins of the leaders is unlikely to be true, because they continued to press him for an answer. Jesus finally responded by challenging the accusers to begin the stoning, with the first stone to be thrown by a sinless one among them. Saying this, Jesus brilliantly turned the accusers into the accused, he put them on trial! Now, one of them would have to declare himself publicly to be free from any violation of God’s laws, by casting that first stone. This would make him subject to the scrutiny of the others, and none of them felt confident to make a public claim to sinlessness. The accusers thus began slowly to slip away one by one. Left alone with the woman, Jesus first asks about those who wanted to condemn her. Since no one cast that first stone, it implies that they all silently acknowledged themselves to be sinners just like her. Jesus does not condemn her either but calls her to reform her life and sin no more.
This story builds a striking contrast between two ways of using religious authority. The leaders used their authority following the letter of the law and aiming to destroy life. Taking advantage of the woman’s sin they attempted to trap Jesus, and to end her life. If they truly sought justice, they would have brought her partner in sin to judgment also. Jesus used his religious authority in a completely opposite manner. Choosing mercy and compassion over the law, he gave the woman a chance for a new life. His use of religious authority was compassion-based and life-giving, while the leaders’ approach was legalistic and life-extinguishing.
Today’s liturgy presents three important shifts and differences in the understanding of religious concepts and the use of religious authority. Isaiah taught the Israelites that God’s salvation will no longer mean the destruction of enemies but a life-giving transformation and restoration of the world and humanity. Paul realized that righteousness before God does not come through following a complex set of rules and regulations but through union with Jesus Christ. Jesus challenged the legalistic and dishonest use of religious authority by some leaders of his day. He used compassion and forgiveness to give the sinful woman an opportunity for a new life, thus teaching that religious authority must be used for life-giving purposes. Those who comprehend and experience the newness of God’s ways as revealed in today’s readings can declare confidently with the psalmist, “the Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced.”
Listening to the Word of God
For a long time, many believed that the sun revolved around the earth. Then came Nicolaus Copernicus with the heliocentric or sun-centered system which caused a ground-breaking shift in astronomy. Thanks to that shift, we are no longer in doubt that the earth revolves around the sun, we know how our world really works and why the sun rises and sets.
As a child, I believed trees move when you look at them through the window of a moving vehicle. Now, in adulthood, there has been a shift in my perception – I know that trees do not move. I am the one on the move and not the trees.
Truth does not change but our understanding of it is subject to change. Shifts in mind-sets are important, and when they impact on our behaviour we can rightly refer to them as great shifts.
When the Pharisees brought before Jesus a woman alleged to have been caught in adultery, they were not seeking legal advice, because they knew already what the law says. The question of the Pharisees was therefore a trap meant to test the character of Jesus and hopefully to incriminate him. Jesus’ response tampered with the whole justice system of his day, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”. Here, one can think of the saying, “If you live in a glass house, do not throw stones.”
Our image of God has a direct effect on our spirituality. An image of a vengeful God evokes fear and panic, while an image of a loving God instils peace and calmness. In the person of Christ, we have an image of God who loves not only the righteous but also the sinner. Often an incentive for more wrongdoing is the feeling of rejection. When a person is made to believe that he (she) is good-for-nothing, it engenders further wrongdoing. On the contrary, when a person is led to the truth that he/she is lovable in spite of a sin committed, there is often a surge of inner strength to overcome wrongdoing.
Even in the 21st century, there are times when people take the law into their own hands and lynch others for an alleged crime, forgetting that human as we are, we are all vulnerable in many ways. Every sinner, like any other human being, has been created in the image and likeness of God. Sin clouds that image but does not take it away. To seek to destroy sin by inflicting pain on a person is to distort the image of God.
Many of the great women and men who are positively changing our world today could have been stoned to death at one point or another in their journey of life, but they persevered, following the example of Jesus who chose to love rather than to condemn us. To move from hate to love, or, better, to love despite hate, is a mark of a person who has undergone a great shift in perception of how interpersonal relationships ought to work. This shift follow exactly what Jesus taught and what he expects from his followers. He not only taught it, he also lived it, as today’s Gospel plainly shows.
“If you live in a glass house, do not throw stones.”
What is my understanding of the justice of God in relation to his mercy?
Do I despise people on account of some wrongdoing on their part? Do I have a holier-than- thou attitude in relation to others?
Response to God
I surrender all my prejudices and ill-judgements in the presence of God. I ask for pardon for the times when I have acted badly towards people I conceived as being in the wrong. I prayerfully seek a renewal of mind.
Response to your World
I will strive to avoid hasty judgements, and choose to have a listening heart for those whom I do not understand and who have different views on life and morality.
What prejudices operate in the midst of our group? Are we judging and condemning a person or a particular group? How can we reach to them in love?
Eternal Father, change my mind and heart. Give me a new vision of the world. Help me to see reality as you see it and to love as you love. Make my heart large enough to reach out and embrace even my enemies. For the sake of Christ, I pray. Amen
Scripture quotations from New Revised Standard Version Bible: Catholic Edition, © 1989, 1993. Used with permission.