Sunday, March 13, is the Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year C).
Mass Readings: Isaiah 43:16-21, Psalm 126:1-6, Philippians 3:8-14, John 8:1-11
Today we get to see Jesus do in his time what we pray he can do in our time: win a no-win situation regarding marriage and sexuality.
In the Gospel, the Pharisees drag a woman caught in adultery before Jesus and ask if she should be stoned. If he says Yes, then he will be in trouble with the Romans, who forbid the Jews from carrying out capital punishment. If he says No, he will be in trouble with the Pharisees, who will denounce him for contradicting Moses.
In response, he takes account of each player in the story and deals with them accordingly.
Who are the Pharisees? They are men who really do claim to be “without sin” because of their personal righteousness and cleansing rituals.
Who is the woman? She is a woman and a sinner, making her basically worthless; a persona non grata.
Who is Jesus? In the passage before today’s Gospel, he has just announced who he is in the Temple by shouting: “If anyone thirst, let him come to me and drink! … ‘Out of his heart shall flow rivers of living water.’”
His words caused a great debate in the Temple, and from today’s readings, we know why. Jesus is either the source of the life-giving water that, in the first reading, flows in the desert and frees the Hebrew slaves, or not. The Pharisees either have to say, with St. Paul, that they “consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord,” or they have to say he is a liar.
They think he is a liar, and so they try to trap him. Jesus responds by turning the tables on them, saying: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
That redefines everybody.
The Pharisees are forced to either declare their sinlessness by stoning the woman and thereby get penalized by the Romans for putting someone to death, or admit they are sinners. In his gesture in response, Jesus may have written their names on the ground — a gesture that, in the wake of the “living water” dispute, recalls the words of Jeremiah: Sinners “shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water.”
That does it: The Pharisees walk away, one by one.
Next, Jesus redefines the woman. He gives her back the dignity that was taken from her. “Neither do I condemn you,” he says. “Go, and from now on, do not sin anymore.” She goes from being the unclean sinner to being a daughter freed by God’s mercy.
We face no-win situations in our day that are like this. The Church’s teachings on sexuality are now profoundly out of step with the world at large. We need to promote them anyway, remembering who we are.
We are all sinners; none of us can condemn the others, not even those of us who are religious. They are all sons and daughters of God, who can win his pardon if they would only believe in his mercy. And Jesus Christ is the living water who satisfies us all, if we will only accept him and stop turning against him.
Tom Hoopes is writer in residence at Benedictine College in Atchison, Kansas.
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