Catholic Homily / Sunday Reflection

5th Sunday of Lent Year C

March 21, 2010

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.