Forgetting, Pursuing, Forgiving (5th Sunday of Lent)

5th Sunday of Lent (C)
March 25, 2007

See also:

Readings: Is 43:16-21 / Phil 3:8-14 / Jn 8:1-11


By Fr. Chito Dimaranan, SDB

The desert path to discovery that we began on the First Sunday of Lent comes full circle today, and takes on a joyful tone: “The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy” (Responsorial Psalm).

We are filled with joy, for like the Jews of old, who were a people of memory, we remember Him “who opens a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters” (1st Reading). We are full of joy, for although we, too, are a people of memory, we are told today to “remember not the events of the past” but focus our sights on the future that is already unfolding here and now: “See, I am doing something new! … In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers.”

The first reading from Isaiah tells us to forget something past and pursue something newer and better.

St. Paul takes up a similar and related theme. He speaks of “everything as loss” in relation to the newer and better reality – “the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (2nd Reading). But he does not merely speak of forgetting. He rouses us to pursuing, exactly as he himself did: “I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus.” The forgetting and the pursuing in the path from desert desolation to discovery comes out clear in his words: “Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.”

There is urgency in Paul’s proclamation. There, too, is palpable joy at the thought and realization that nothing was lost, but that everything was gained, when one realizes the absolute newness involved in the gift of new life in Christ.

Last Sunday, and the Sunday before that, the Gospel readings exhort us to repentance. In the parable of the “prodigal Father” that we read last week, we saw the call to repentance and reconciliation through the prism of a short story with three brief chapters: SETUP, UPSET, RESET. The original setup of peace and harmony between two brothers and their father was upset by a selfish and willful act on the part of the younger son. But the father’s prodigality in love – an image par excellence of God’s love for his erring people – went to such lengths so as to reset a broken relationship. God’s love – like the father’s love in the parable – came in bundles of threes: “He ran. He embraced. And he kissed his son.” He brought out “the finest robe.” He had his son wear “a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.” And third, he had his servants “take the fattened calf and slaughter it.”

We are, indeed, filled with joy for the great thing done by the Lord has to do with His overwhelming desire and design to reset us, reform us, and reconcile us to Himself.

But wait … Today’s Gospel adds further details. To the basic story that shows the utter compassion and mercy of God, as shown by Jesus’ refusing to condemn the woman caught in adultery, “Neither do I condemn you,” the Lord adds an important point about our response to the gift of forgiveness: “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore” (Gospel).

Forget … yes … everyone who has been forgiven ought to do as Isaiah tells us: “Remember not the events of the past.” But forgetting ought to lead to pursuing. Seek for newer, better, and higher things. Pursue, not the losses but the gains, that accrue from “the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus.” Leave behind what is past and gone … “Neither do I condemn you.” But “return to me with your whole heart; for I am gracious and merciful.” (Verse before the Gospel) Forget, but pursue: “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”

We have come full circle today in our spiritual desert journey towards discovery. Next week, we start the holiest of weeks in our liturgical calendar. Beginning Palm Sunday, we assume to the full our true nature as Christians – as a people of memory. As a people deeply steeped in saving memorial, we are asked somewhat contradictorily, to remember and remember not, at one and the same time. “Remember not the events of the past.” (1st Reading). The biblical concept of memorial has to do both with looking back and looking forward. Remember not the events of the past … Be not caught up only in looking back at the less important wonders of God. Look ahead to even greater wonders He continues to do in our lives. Remember not the losses, but count the overwhelming gains we get at our discovery – “the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus.” Remember not the upset – the sins, the disobedient acts, the rebellions that we did in our weakness. But remember the original setup of God – who “has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.” Focus and look forward to a God who continues to do a reset for us all. His love comes in bundles of threes. His love is everlasting.

The woman caught in adultery obviously was guilty as charged. But even worse so were those who wanted to use her in order to lay an elaborate trap for Jesus. They, too, were guilty as hell … no more, no less. They, too, were upsetting God’s setup. But He who “has come to bring life and life in its fullness” was not one to get lost in futile remembrances of events past. He is one who looks forward and pursues the resetting and restoration of that upset loving plan of the Father whose love goes far beyond the human capacity to understand. “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”

We are a people steeped in the upset of sinfulness. We are a people, too, of memory. We remember God’s wonders and we are filled with joy. But our memory, more than looking backward, really looks and moves forward. “I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling in Christ Jesus.”

Forgetting, and “remembering not the events of the past” in a superficial way, we are a people called to go in pursuit of God’s promises. One such glorious promise is fulfilled today in our hearing – the merciful act of forgiving for each and every one of us, scheming, adulterous, unjust – and – sinful people who have such short memories!

We are asked once more to do as God does today – He loves in bundles of threes! Our alternative opening prayer is one more such bundle:

Father in heaven, the love of your Son led him to accept the suffering of the cross that his brothers might glory in new life. CHANGE OUR SELFISHNESS INTO SELF-GIVING (1). HELP US TO EMBRACE THE WORLD YOU HAVE GIVEN US (2), that we may TRANSFORM THE DARKNESS OF ITS PAIN INTO THE LIFE AND JOY OF EASTER (3). Grant this through Christ our Lord.

[Paranaque City, March 22, 2007]

[Dundalk, MD – March 28, 2004]

Gratitude, they say, is the memory of the heart. Memory, at least in the usual sense, has to do with things past, events gone by, favors completed, and deeds done. A grateful heart remembers with fondness, with joy, with thanksgiving.

Today’s readings, however, go beyond mere “remembrances of things past.” All three, in fact, transcend mere gratefulness, and all three probe deeper into the territory of exultant rejoicing, pretty much in the same tradition of last Sunday’s Laetare Sunday (4th Sunday of Lent), which we touched upon last week.

Wherefore rejoice? Isaiah gives us an opening salvo for reflection: “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new!” Isaiah seems to tell us… No, do not get overly focused on the great things that God has done for you. Do not be merely satisfied with Divinely planned wonders like the escape from Egypt, the miracle of the manna, the abiding presence of God as “cloud by day and fire by night,” etc. Although we recognize, as the Israelites, indeed, recognized that “the Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy,” there is something more … a great many more surprises are in the offing. St. Paul affirms the need to look at things from a broader perspective and “consider everything as loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” If we think we have seen the ultimate, think again; look again; and know that a world of difference exists between mere “rubbish” (the modern equivalent would be more like “shit”) and the “righteousness that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God.”

Gratitude is looking back with satisfaction and appreciation. Exultant rejoicing has to do with looking confidently at what’s coming up ahead, without in any way denying what has gone before. Gratitude, the logical offshoot of a history of favors received, however, takes a back seat to exultation and rejoicing for the coming marvels that “no eye has seen, nor ear heard.”

But Jesus, being the prophet par excellence that he is, gives us a glimpse of what’s coming up ahead … he makes all things new! He treats a potential dilemma of a problem in the person of the woman caught in adultery as a powerful way to show that God follows a different set of criteria … “God’s ways are not man’s ways.” Using what they thought was a perfect case to pin Jesus down, the Pharisees and scribes brought an adulterous woman in order to be stoned to death “as the law prescribed.” As the people watched this unfolding drama of “fidelity to the law” with bated breath, a story widely expected to end in a tragedy of soap-opera proportions, Jesus “bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.”
There is a very real tendency in all of us to write off people in our lives, as quickly and as definitively as we erase their names from our electronic address books or mail boxes. In our condemnatory and unforgiving tendencies, we may easily write the “final chapters” in our relationships with others. In this world marred by fragile relationships; in this society where brokenness and all sorts of rifts characterize many of our contracts, promises and vows; in these times when we can very easily walk out of permanent commitments in the name of “forging new grounds,” “redefining oneself” and “re-engineering” just about everything, there is a seeping and lurking danger of facetiously dispensing with those who do not follow our own “script,” who “follow a different drummer,” or who seem to be odd or different.

The self-righteous Pharisees and scribes, following old, cut and dried rules, were trying to “permanently delete” the adulterous woman, like an unwanted file or a dreaded virus from their moral “hard drive.” Rancor, anger, condemnation, revenge, and unforgiveness … all these constitute the equivalent of our own “search and destroy” “weapons of mass destruction,” that we employ to write off people in our lives, to destroy all semblance of exultant rejoicing, and to maintain in our memory banks, both random and remote, an image of a world that is beyond help and beyond hope.

The world, for decades, has gotten to be “hard wired” for violence and destruction. Thousands of studies all over the world, have proven beyond doubt the “correlation” between violence in mass media and violent behavior of children and adolescents, who, on average, see at least 20 hours of violence-filled shows on TV each week. Societies the world over are witnessing the progressive programming of whole nations and populations towards more violence, more brokenness, more vengeance, and more hatred. In such a situation, gratitude for things past grovels. The memory of past marvels shrivels; and exultant rejoicing all turn into mere drivels.

Hope “grows grey hairs;” and faith and love turn into mere platitudes … that is, if we persist in merely pining for St. Paul’s “rubbish,” and Isaiah’s “events of the past.” Despondency and despair are bound to get the upper hand, for as long as we think that “righteousness” is basically the fruit of our own efforts, of our own feverish strivings. Discouragement will remain our lot if we think that the newness that Scripture is talking about depends solely on us.

Perhaps it is time that we looked closely at the surprises and wondrous deeds the Lord Jesus Christ wrought at the representative of sinful sorrowing humanity – the adulterous woman! I do not know, nor do I care, about what the Lord wrote on the ground as he bent down while the woman’s accusers stood proud and mighty atop their moral high ground. But I can be certain of one thing: the Lord was not about ready to write the final chapter of the woman’s life. Without in any way condoning her sin, nor exonerating the woman, in a marvelously surprising and novel way, Jesus showed compassion with a respectful and loving advice: “Go, and from now on, do not sin anymore.”

The Lord was writing his outline for a world of newness, based on a new law, and a new set of criteria and values: the beatitudes, the new commandment of love, the values of a “coming kingdom” that elsewhere in Scripture is portrayed as “new heavens and a new earth … for the old order has passed away!”

Dwelling on things past makes for gratitude. Hopeful attachment to the God who continues “to do great things,” “who makes all things new,” coupled with our own human, earthly efforts at participating in God’s work by “straining forward to what lies ahead” makes for exultant rejoicing.