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Monday, 7 March 2016

Homily for Fifth (5th) Sunday of Lent Year C By Fr. Munachi Ezeogu, CSSp

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

On the Gospel – Justice Giving Way to Mercy

There is a little known sidelight to the story of the woman taken in adultery. After the Pharisees drag her before Jesus for sentencing and Jesus says, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her," a stone comes flying through from the crowd. Jesus looks up, frowns slightly, smiles a little, and says, “If you don’t mind, mother! I am only trying to make a point here.” In one way this is a good joke because it shows the natural tendency of good people, like the Pharisees, to throw stones at those they consider sinners. In other ways it is a bad joke because it tries to paint sinless Mary in the colours of sinful humanity. The last person who would want to throw a stone at the woman caught in adultery would be the Blessed Virgin Mary, God's most favoured one. According to the joke, Jesus says he is trying to make a point here. What is the point that Jesus is trying to make? Why would the church give us this story for our spiritual nourishment on the last Sunday before Holy Week when we commemorate the suffering and death of Jesus on our behalf?

The story of the woman caught in adultery had a very curious history in the early church. Many ancient bibles do not have it, some have it as part of a different chapter in the Gospel of John, and still others have it as part of the Gospel of Luke. Some scholars think that, originally, this story could have been part of Luke's Gospel. This is because it reflects themes that are dear to Luke, such as, concern for sinners, interest in women, and the compassion of Jesus. The fact that it is missing in some early bibles and found in different locations in others suggests that some early Christian communities had removed this story from the Bible. When later Christians tried to put it back into the Bible, they were no longer sure of its original location.

Why would anyone want to remove this story from the Bible? There are people who cannot understand why Jesus would sympathize with a convicted adulterer. After all, it is decreed in the Bible that such offenders should be put to death (Leviticus 20:10). Does this not seem like an obstruction of justice? Remember the case of Karla Faye Tucker, the self-confessed, repentant murderer who was executed in Texas in February 1998. Many Christian organisations, including the Vatican, had pleaded for her pardon. Yet the execution was carried out. Supporters of the death penalty argued that no one should interfere with the course of justice. Well, Jesus just did. There are people who think that compassion and leniency are a sign of weakness. These are probably the kind of Christians who tried to suppress the story by removing it from the church's Bible.

How could Christians read these marvellous stories of Jesus’ compassion and still take a hard-line stand with regard to the correctional services? The answer lies in how one reads. Some people identify themselves with the Pharisees when they read the story. Their interest is how to deal with other people who break the law. Their answer is usually that justice should be allowed to run its due course. Now you can begin to understand why the medieval church did not see anything wrong with burning “convicted” witches like Joan of Arc on the stake. Didn't the Bible say that no one who practices sorcery should be allowed to live (Leviticus 20:27)? That is the law, that is justice. Our only duty is to implement it.

But when we read the story, identifying ourselves not with the Pharisees but with the woman herself, then we begin to see the story for the good news that it really is. Like the woman, we “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Like her we all deserve death, “for the wages of sin is death”. (Romans 6:23). But when Jesus comes into the picture, he overturns our death sentence. He sets us free with his words of absolution: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and sin no more” (John 8:11). The story shows how Jesus stands up for sinners before the law. In so doing he draws upon himself the hostility of the hard-line officers, who will eventually arrest him and give him a taste of their justice. The church puts this story before us today so that we can see ourselves in this sinner woman whom Jesus saves from sure death at the risk of attracting death to himself.

This story, therefore, is a fitting preparation for Holy Week when we see Jesus making the ultimate sacrifice to grant us clemency, we who are already sentenced to death by our sins. As we prepare for Holy Week, let us thank Jesus for his mercy and love. And let us promise him that we shall commit ourselves to doing exactly as he tells us: to go and to sin no more.

On the Epistle – True and False Righteousness 

Last Sunday we read the parable of the Prodigal Son. It is the story of the two bad sons of a good father. The younger son lived a bad life, then realized his waywardness and returned to the embrace of his father. The elder son lived a law-abiding life, but ended up outside the father’s house and absent from the big feast of the fat cow he had helped to raise. Which of these two sons can we compare to Saul, who later became the apostle Paul? Many of us will quickly answer, “the younger son.” Paul lived a wayward life and then experienced a total conversion to the ways of God, right? Wrong. Paul never lived a wayward life? Right from his youth he lived a strict religious life. As he said before the tribune in Jerusalem, “I am a Jew ... brought up in this city at the feet of Gamaliel, educated strictly according to our ancestral law, being zealous for God, just as all of you are today” (Acts 22:3) No, Paul was not wayward at all. He was a religious Jew of strict observance. He was like the elder son in the parable of the Prodigal Son, who was always law-abiding and intent of doing his father’s will.

Paul’s conversion was not a change from a life of waywardness to a life of discipline. It was a conversion from one form of righteousness to another form of righteousness. The younger son in the parable needed a conversion of the unrighteous, to return to the father’s house. The elder son needed a conversion of the righteous, from self-righteousness to true righteousness in Christ or, as Paul describes it in today’s second reading, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God based on faith” (Philippians 3:9). This is the kind of conversion that Paul had. Which goes to show us that, whether you judge yourself to be righteous or you judge yourself to be unrighteous, we all need a conversion, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). 

Which is better, the self-righteousness of the law-abiding Pharisees or the unrighteousness of the tax-collectors and sinners? You know the answer. Jesus was harder on the self-righteous Pharisees than he was on the sinful tax-collectors and prostitutes. Don’t get me wrong. Both the Pharisee and the tax-collector have gone astray and wandered from the path of true righteousness. But whereas it is easy for sinners to recognize their sinfulness and turn back to God, it is very hard for the self-righteous to recognize that they too are in error. This is because when they compare themselves with others they say, “I am not doing too badly, after all. I am better than most people.”

How can we tell when we are entangled in the sinister web of self-righteousness? The test is pretty simple: How tolerant are you of those you perceive as sinners? Are you an easy person lo live with? Jesus was an easy person to live with. But look at the self-righteous elder brother of the prodigal son. He was so intolerant of his “sinful”junior brother that he walked out on him, on his family and on the feast. Look at the life of the rabbi Saul before his conversion. He was so intolerant of those who had left the synagogue and joined the Christian church that he was prepared to kill. He unleashed a campaign to visit suffering and death on Christians who, he believed, were messing up the good, old religion that came down from their ancestors. But when he converted and came to Christ, he realized that the sign of true zeal for the faith is readiness to die for one’s beliefs, not readiness to kill for one’s beliefs.

From then on Paul’s goal became, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10). Paul, the killer of Christians, would one day give his life to die as a Christian. He had attained his life’s goal to suffer and die with Christ. This, brothers and sisters, is true righteousness. Let us today pray in the words of Peter Marshall:

Lord, when we are wrong, make us willing to change.
And when we are right, make us easy to live with.

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