for the 5th Sunday of Lent, Cycle C
March 25, 2007
Not long ago, at a library book-sale, I came across a book entitled: How To Think about God. It was written by a now deceased professor at the University of Chicago, a winter-season convert to Catholicism named Dr. Mortimer Adler and it proved to be a scholarly study of that area of Philosophy which is called Natural Theology. In it, he explores what we can know about God by the unaided power of human reasoning. As you might suppose, Dr. Adlerís book is not exactly recreational reading and it is easy to see why it never made the top ten in the best seller list. But it occurs to me that there is another book, an all-time best-seller which could appropriately claim the very same title: How To Think about God.. That book, of course, is the Bible, both the Old and the New Testament... This is a book which, we believe, goes way beyond Dr. Adlerís philosophical reflections and adds to the light of human reason, the searching light of Divine Revelation. Itís truth is guaranteed by God, Himself. Just a moment ago, after the first and second readings, we affirmed our faith: "This is the word of the Lord." And after the third reading: "The gospel of Jesus Christ." We believe that when we read or listen to the Sacred Scriptures, God is here and now making Himself known to us, telling us: "This is how I want you to think about Me. This is the way I Am."
What a dramatic example of this truth of faith we find in todayís gospel reading! What a splendid light it shines on the God we come to know in and through Jesus! Canít you imagine how it must have been that day... the woman, crouched down in the midst of that hostile crowd... her sanctimonious accusers, their rocks ready in their hands. She was their victim, but she was not the real target of their animosity. It was Jesus whom they were out to entrap. They knew well the way He was with sinners - how gently He judged - how readily He forgave. And they were out to trap Him by His very gentleness and to discredit Him as an enemy of the Law of Moses, with its harsh demand that one such as she should be stoned to death. Canít we just hear them - those holier than thou hypocrites, loud in their demand for the letter of the law... and that poor girl, trembling with terror yet almost wishing for the moment when the stones would crush out her life and put an end to her shame. And Our Blessed Lord - not for a moment was He in any doubt about what they were up to. He looked into their hearts and saw their hypocrisy and He looked into her heart and knew that, guilty though she might be, she was far more sinned against than sinning. And the gospel tells us how He bent down and began to write in the gravel, tracing out the words, bold and big for all to see. We donít know what He wrote. But scripture scholars from the earliest times, St. Jerome among them, have speculated that He wrote the secret sins of those would-be executioners. Canít you see Him there, spelling out the word: Thief - then His eyes singling out some individual from the crowd. He bends again to write: "Perjurer" and looks at another with a look that read his soul... Bending to write: "Adulterer", He looks in wordless accusation at the loudest among them. Then, He challenges them: "The one who is sinless among you - let him throw the first stone." One by one, the stones drop from their hands. One by one, they begin to slip away, "beginning with the eldest among them" - as the gospel remembers the scene for us.
Now they are along - Jesus and the woman, still trembling, still apprehensive. St. Augustine has captured for us that gospel moment in one short sentence, telling us: "There remained Misery and Mercy" utter misery - limitless mercy. See her there, already bruised and ill-used, her face hidden in her hands.... She waits - sensing the silence, fearful of what would come next. Then she dares to look up at her savior... And there on the face of Jesus, the look that loves her back to life! Gently, almost in a whisper: "Woman, has no one condemned you?" "No one, Lord." "Neither do I condemn you... Go and from now on, sin no more." Gentle, Patient, Forgiving - Asking only the good will to make a new beginning... This is the God we come to know in Jesus.
There is more to be said about todayís gospel reading - an historical footnote we might call it. From the earliest times, there have been those for whom this page told a story too good to be true. They wanted to tear it out of the book. They doubted that it really belonged there. Obviously they thought that it made Our Lord altogether too soft on sinners. They considered it an open invitation to presume on Godís goodness and to use His ready forgiveness as an excuse to go on sinning. But we can thank God, the story continues to hold its honored place in this gospel of John, this good news about God. For almost two thousand years, it has lifted up anxious hearts and put fear to flight and filled us with courage for new beginnings.
Why is this story so heartening? We can find our answer in a scriptural expression to be found in the Letter to the Hebrews, one that accurately describes our human condition. We, all of us, are "beset with weakness". And in our weakness, we may fail the test of temptation and fall far short of what God asks of us. Sin is a sad fact of life. And our dismay at our failure may darken into discouragement and even into despair. There may even come a time when we begin to feel:
"It is too late for me I have used up all the patience of God." But then, in our dark distress, we remember how it was that day in Jerusalem and can believe again in the limitless patience of God, gentle in the eyes and gentle in the voice of Jesus, Our Lord.