The readings for the 5th Sunday of Lent give us hope for the future and remind us of the loving compassion of God even in the most embarrassing situations.
We begin with Isaiah telling the downhearted people of Israel, saddened by their captivity in Babylon, not to think about the past, to forget about it. This is because God is “doing a new thing, a new deed” so wonderful that even the wild animals will honour him for it. He is going to take his people back to the Promised Land and give them freedom in their own homeland.
What can this reading about the people of Israel say to us? The Gospel puts it into a new context and shows us how God is still taking people from captivity and bringing them into the promised land of his kingdom. The story is about a woman caught “in the very act” of adultery. It would be tempting for the modern hearer to stop at that point and ask “Where was the man?”, which is a fair question, but we need to move on to get the point of the story. The scribes and Pharisees, who wanted something to use against Jesus, thought they had presented him with a clever dilemma. If he agreed with them and said the woman should be stoned, he would weaken his reputation among his followers as a man of compassion; in addition, he would be in danger from the Romans because the Jews had not permission to issue or carry out a sentence of death – only the Romans could do that. On the other hand, if he disagreed with the scribes and Pharisees, he would be breaking the Mosaic Law and would be open to sanction by the Jewish authorities. As for the woman, she was as good as dead.
Imagine their disappointment when he turned their cleverness around and used it against them: “If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her”. Not only that; he went further and showed that true goodness is not measured by rules. Judgment must start with ourselves, within us, not with an external Law. St. Paul, a former Pharisee, puts it very well when he admits that he has not “become perfect yet”. He goes on: I forget the past and I strain ahead for what is still to come; I am racing for the finish, for the prize to which God calls us upwards to receive in Christ Jesus.
Jesus didn’t say that adultery wasn’t wrong, but his focus was on the woman and her future. She had been exposed for all to see; we can imagine her embarrassment and wagging tongues spreading the juicy gossip about her. What kind of life was in store for her? Jesus speaks very gently to her and says no word of condemnation: he sees not just a sinner with a past, but a saint with a future and he urges her to go for that. We have Jesus’ assurance that when our lives seem hopeless, like the dead wilderness described by Isaiah, those are the times when God is there ready to do a “new thing”.
Sr Catherine Gibson OP