Readings: Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11

The Gospel account this Sunday is partly a study in contrasts. That is, we see the great disproportion that exists between the infinite mercy of God and the very human quick-to-condemn approach of many with regard to the sins of others.

There is a universal human tendency to be harsh with others and relatively lenient with our self. Few of us wish to acknowledge errors, and seek instead a way to excuse rather than accuse ourselves. “To err is human,” we readily say when it comes to our self. With regard to others, it is more like the opposite: “If others error, there is no excuse for that.”

What in fact is the rest of the famous phrase, “To err is human”?  “To forgive is divine,” and that is precisely the point of the Gospel today, with the loving invitation to act more like God, who in fact has given us the ability to forgive. We tend to get stuck, though, in the familiar mode of seeing the speck in the eye of our neighbor, or spouse or community member, and overlooking the beam in our own eye. Why is this reality so often the case, we may ask?

In the Gospel passage for this Fifth Sunday of Lent, we find the very familiar human tendency described. The evangelist and apostle Saint John is the only Gospel account containing the moving episode of the woman, whether she was young or old we really do not know, who has be caught in adultery and all those around her ready to condemn her to death as prescribed in the Hebrew scriptures.

Jesus is not so quick to apply the sentence. In fact he bypasses it altogether. Jesus readily extends divine pardon to the woman, telling the angry crowd, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” It was a very gentle and tactful way of saying to the crowd, “If you are so ready to condemn one sinner, then how about your own sins? Should you all be stoned to death as well for similar or worse infractions of the law of God?”

Interestingly enough, no one there protests with, “This case is different. The woman deserves to die. We know she is guilty.” Or, “We never do or have done anything as bad as she has.”

Instead the crowd withdraws, one by one, beginning with the elders, quite aware, no doubt, that they have no monopoly on passing judgment or condemning others. Jesus is really helping them to hear and heed the call to extend divine compassion, even to the guilty.

Jesus remains and asks the formerly condemned, “Where did they all go? Has no one condemned you?” “No one,” is her reply. And Jesus says, “Nor do I condemn you. You may go, but from now on avoid this sin.” Notice he does not say, “What you did is just fine, and these phoney scribes and Pharisees are going to hell for their narrow-mindedness.” Rather, Jesus seeks to save and bestow new life on both sides; the one being condemned and those who are condemning.

The mercy extended to sinners, Jesus says, is not the acceptance of sin as relative or unimportant. Rather, the point is that sin is forgivable if contrition for what one has done and a resolve to avoid sin is present in the heart of sinner.

Jesus neither humiliates nor lectures the woman about her deeds nor the importance of marital fidelity. Jesus presumes that she already knows what is right and wrong and that she is more in need at this moment for healing and encouragement than being scolded.

The attitude of Jesus, using very few words, is the most effective sermon the woman could have received. The same is the case for the scribes and Pharisees, who with very few words from Jesus obviously get his point. Maybe they even consider that the man involved, as it does take two to tango, needs to be spoken to as well.

Saint Francis of Assisi is said to have put the teaching of Jesus into a wise little phrase: “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary, use words.” Put another way is the phrase, “Actions speak louder than words,” as the Holy Child nuns taught us in Catholic grade school many moons ago.

Jesus sends the woman forth with a new awareness of her error, that this is not the end of the road, and in fact the beginning of a new way of living and observing God’s Law.

The prophet Isaiah speaks about this in the first reading this Sunday, with words from God, “See, I am doing something new, so that the people whom I formed for myself might announce my praise.”

We are being given this lesson in Lent to encourage us to imitate Christ, especially with regard to the faults and failings of others. This never means turning a blind eye to evil and sin or discounting its gravity. Rather, sin is to be avoided and when sins are committed, they are to be repented of.

In the hour of judgment, God does not ask us about what was done or not done by others, but by ourselves. We can only live our own lives and account for our own failings in what we have done and what we have failed to do. This is the heart of the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Penance, seeking forgiveness for our own sins, not the sins of someone else.

The clear message of the Gospel is sincere conversion of heart, a resounding theme throughout the season of Lent, and of belonging wholly to Christ and walking in his ways.

Saint Paul puts it so well in the second reading for Mass: “I wish to know Christ and the power flowing from his resurrection; likewise to know how to share in his sufferings by being formed into the pattern of his death. Thus do I hope that I may arrive at resurrection from the dead.

Many are familiar with this simple proverb: “If you cannot say something good about a person, then do not say anything.”

Charitable silence is always to be preferred for the followers of Christ. Someone once put it poetically thus: “Things which I receive from uncertain rumors I will rather conceal than hazard myself to beget an untruth.” What a wonderful saying to live by!

Saint Augustine, the great Father and Doctor of the Church, took the same idea so far as to exclude from his common table any of his companions who had that day spoken ill of others. How often might we be missing from the meal if we were alive then?

Usually our challenge is not so much about whether or not to stone a sinner, but the much smaller matter, though maybe just as difficult, of holding my tongue when I’d rather sanctimoniously pass judgment on another.

If the follower of Christ is to be a faithful imitator of the Lord, it doe not normally mean performing miracles, but exercising true charity, offering forgiveness and being compassionate.

As we have been and are in need of forgiveness and have been forgiven, so we must extend forgiveness to others. C.S. Lewis said that he found forgiveness of others a very difficult thing to do until he realized he had been doing it with himself for a very long time.

The tendency to condemn might in fact be with us until death. That should not surprise us. What we need is the grace of God not to act on such a tendency. God has given us Sacred Scripture, the Sacraments of the Church and a call to personal conversion coupled with a life of prayer as vital aspects of our spiritual journey through life. Let us make full use of them today and always.

Living in peace with others, which always entails forgiveness, greatly builds up the Body of Christ. Showing respect and understanding, compassion and forgiveness, in receiving the most neglected and wayward into our midst, is part and parcel of our commitment as followers Jesus Christ, the all-merciful Lord who never tires of calling us to new life.

Abbot Christian Leisy, OSB