Saturday, March 20, 2010

The 5th Sunday of Lent

The story in this Sunday’s Gospel recalls scenes in certain places at the end of World War II, when mobs of people, just recently liberated from German occupation, took revenge on those who had collaborated with the enemy – for example, women who had gotten involved with German soldiers. As often happens in such situations, it seems safe to suggest that sometimes it was actually business rivalries and other old scores that were being settled in the guise of post-war revenge. From the way the event is described in the Gospel, Jesus was being asked to take a stand in a situation that seems more like a mob scene than the calm of a courtroom.
Moreover, the mob’s motives for trying to get Jesus involved are unclear & certainly seem suspect. It’s not even completely clear exactly what he was being asked to decide. The whole scene suggests that it was an attempt to trap Jesus in some way. Was the mob trying to get Jesus to render a judgment without first giving the accused the hearing the Law entitled her to? Things like that happen, of course, all too often in human relations, especially in our scandal-driven mass media. Had Jesus gone along with that, had he judged her case without the hearing that the Law entitled her to have, then presumably Jesus would have exposed himself in the process as something less than the prophet he was purported to be.
Of course, Jesus saw through all of this. Instead of playing the mob’s game, he himself cleverly took control of the situation – by silently writing on the ground with his finger. Sometimes one way to silence difficult people is to ignore them. What is more annoying to someone than your deliberately doing something else when he or she is demanding your undivided attention? Certainly, anyone who has ever been in the position of having to wait for someone else’s answer to one’s question or request, or who has ever been kept endlessly “on hold,” will recognize the power in Jesus’ reaction!
Then, when Jesus finally did say something, he totally turned the case completely around. The Law assigned the initiative in executing the sentence to the witnesses, but Jesus’ response forced them to judge themselves instead – in other words, to examine their own lives & their own hearts, to see themselves as God sees them. The result was quite dramatic, as they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.
Now it was the woman’s turn to wait, while her accusers slowly drifted away as Jesus continued to write on the ground. As St. Augustine later summarized the silent drama of the scene: only two were left, misery and mercy.
Finally, the silence ended. Jesus said to her: “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” Like last week’s wonderful parable of the father and his two sons, this story is a dramatic demonstration of God’s way of dealing with us – and of what God really wants and expects from us in return.
When we honestly examine ourselves without excuses or evasions, when we look directly into our own lives & the depths of our own hearts, and so begin to see ourselves as God sees us, as sinners truly forgiven & invited to reconciliation, the out of that overflowing experience of forgiveness received real reconciliation with one another becomes an authentic possibility – and, more than a possibility, an imperative.