5th Sunday in Lent Year C
March 13, 2016
GOD, GRACIOUS AND MERCIFUL
We remember a lot of things. Scientists say – and this is proven by experience – that there is more to our remote memory than what our recent memory bank contains. Older people remember a whole lot from their childhood, but often forget what they just did a few weeks or months back – nay, even what they had for breakfast this morning.
But we do remember past hurts. We hold on to grudges. We remember very well the times someone else pulled a fast one on us, and walked all over us. We remember the tears. We remember the pain. We remember the sufferings untold. And we hold on to anger. And, to be honest, who among us did not at least once give in to the desire to take revenge?
Today, the Lord upsets our usual memory. And He does so, right from the first reading: “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago, consider not.” Notice the insistence? The line says the same thing twice over.
St. Paul, who was an observant and practicing Jew, knew more than his rituals and rules. He remembered how he persecuted the incipient Church. He remembered how rabidly against he was, even how he “breathed murderous threats” against the small band of believers and followers of the Christ.
Today, Paul counsels pretty much the same: “I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus, my Lord.” He emphasized “just one thing … forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead … the prize of God’s upward calling in Christ Jesus.”
You know dear friends, I would like to point out one thing. We have such powerful memories. We call for capital punishments for heinous crimes. We ask that drug dealers be banished from the face of the earth. A significant number of us want the restoration of the death penalty for certain high-profile crimes. If we are to be honest, we gloat every time we hear about criminals getting their just desserts by getting killed.
We even remember the Old Testament prescriptions of death to adulterers and blasphemers, and we are happy when the good guy in movies finish off the bad guys, no matter how violent may have been the means.
Today, however, the Christian good news tells us more than just “remember not the events of the past.” The Christian good news tells us to savor the words and promises of the Lord: “See I am doing something new!”
Everyone around the Lord on that drama-filled day expected that the rules be applied. The woman, was, after all, caught in a heinous crime of their days – adultery. The Law was clear. She had to put to death by stoning. The Scribes and Pharisees sure knew their law. They were so sure of their law that they needed no lawyers. All they needed was witnesses.
The poor woman’s fate was sealed. There was no escape for her. The Law was clear and straightforward, and there was an angry mob of respectable and learned – but very angry men, mind you, who were not ready to forget the events of the past, but they sure as hell would not let things like this go. Not when there was a perfect opportunity to put the Lord to shame, too, in public.
The Lord knew. The Lord understood. The Lord saw their real intentions. It was not to punish the public sinner – the woman caught in adultery. It was not even to impress upon people how bad the sin was, but it was a perfect opportunity for them to test the rabble rouser and much sought after teacher and wonder-worker, and possibly, to put him down in public.
The woman who was not alone when she did the deadly sin – for it always takes two to commit adultery – was totally alone in her shame, in her wretchedness, in the midst of an unforgiving crowd that was thirsting for blood.
But the Lord was there to fulfill the new things promised of old. The Lord was there to continue the tradition that every good and practicing Jew recited from memory: “The Lord has done great things for us. We are filled with joy.” The Lord was there, to teach the self-righteous, but very cruel accusers a lesson.
And this is a lesson worth remembering – a new thing worth bearing in mind, never to be lost again – that each one of us stands alone before God. The Lord, the Savior, the Redeemer, the merciful God was not about to join the bandwagon of people who just did things based on rules and rituals. The Lord was there to show that God stands with the sinner in solidarity, and not above the same sinner in judgment.
Bishop Robert Barron, commenting on the life of St. Paul, spoke of “sheer, shocking grace” that made Saul change his ways from persecutor to avid disciple. This is similar to the experience I had as a student of theology and as one preparing for ordination. I was working on week-ends in a parish led by an old Italian missionary. I attended a birthday party with the young people of the parish. I got a little tipsy and went home to the parish way past midnight.
Fr. Giovanni Rizzato knew I went home late. He knew I was a little drunk. The following morning, he asked me point blank: “What time did you get home last night?” I could not tell a lie as I was sure he knew. I told the truth. He gave me a little knock on the head and said: “Don’t do that again. I won’t tell your Rector, but never do that again.”
He stood by me in my fault. He did not sit above me in judgment. He suffered with me then in sheer compassion. He did what the books of rules didn’t say. He was as compassionate as he was firm.
Friends, I learned my lesson for life. I learned that there is such a thing as sheer and shocking grace – the same sheer and shocking grace of compassion and mercy that God, in Christ showed the woman caught in adultery.
“Has no one condemned you?” “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and fror now on, do not sin any more.”
“Behold I am doing something new … Even now, return to me with your whole heart, for I am gracious and merciful.”