Fifth Sunday of Lent - a reflection

Monday, April 4, 2022 - 10:45

Fr. Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard, O.Carm., is parish priest of the parish of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Mayfield, Sussex. He is a member of the Aylesford Community. Today, Fr. Patrick is reflecting on the readings from yesterday's Mass. Please read Fr Patrick's introduction to these reflections and please look at the readings for Sunday Mass here (these will open in a separate window for ease of reading):

“I am doing a new deed” says the Lord in the reading this Sunday from Isaiah. The past is recalled, the Exodus from Egypt and the crossing of the Red Sea. Now there is to be a new deed, a new exodus as the exiles in Babylon are called back across the desert to Jerusalem.

The responsorial psalm that follows is the great song of returned exiles: they go out full of tears, they come back full of song. And we are about to celebrate the exodus won for us by Jesus, his exodus which he is about to accomplish in Jerusalem, as Luke says in the scene of the Transfiguration. Through Jesus on the cross, God is reconciling his people with a fresh start, new life, bestowing his mercy.

That new life is the background to the remarkable story we hear as the Gospel this Sunday. Has nobody condemned you” says Jesus to her, then neither do I am. With such a ringing endorsement of God’s mercy, Lent for us continues and changes gear. Whilst the old designation of Passiontide for this week has gone, the change of emphasis is noticeable as we approach Holy Week.

This Sunday’s Gospel is the third in the notable sequence that we have been following this year. We have had a teaching from Jesus, then a parable and now a dramatic encounter. For all, the theme is repentance and reconciliation. Although the incident of the woman is found in the Gospel of John, it does not belong there. It seems to be a piece of Gospel tradition which was not used by any of the evangelists yet it has survived because its message was too powerful to be discarded. It bears all the signs of being an authentic piece of teaching from Jesus himself. It is a story uniquely to be read on its own terms because it does not have a setting within one of the Gospels.

Looking at the incident more closely, the expressions used and the atmosphere invoked by this story is not that of John. John speaks of the Jews, not Scribes and Pharisees, for example. The Jesus we meet is the very human Jesus of the other Gospels compared with the more magisterial Jesus of John. There are manuscripts with this incident included in Luke and that may be the reason for including it in this year of Luke.

Because this is a stand alone episode, questions then arise about the way we are to read it. In these weekly reflections, I have been stressing the importance of context. This incident lacks a Gospel context.

We read the parable of the Prodigal Son last week out of its context in the Gospel because we can come back to that in a few months time. The context for the Gospels for the middle Sundays this year is is Lent and repentance as I’ve mentioned.

There are as it happens two trials in the this scene. The traditional title of the episode as “the woman caught in adultery” (the missal calls her “the adulterous woman”) deflects attention from other aspects in much the same way as the title “the Prodigal Son” deflects attention from the elder son. In both, the more dominant characters are thereby neatly sidelined.

The trial which needs highlighting is that of the scribes and the Pharisees. What we have here is a lynch mob. The woman is condemned without proper accusation, witnesses or trial. The essential background to this incident is the story of Susanna in the book of Daniel. Why wasthis happening so publicly, maybe it was a set up by a husband seeking to be rid of his wife.

We can speculate about the background, what we certainly have is a mob baying for blood. It is also a good opportunity to trap Jesus. If he orders her to be stoned, he will lose his reputation for clemency; if he tells them to release her, he will not be upholding justice.

Stoning was forbidden by the Romans, justice was required by the law of Moses.

Jesus smartly turns the tables on them. He twice bends down and doodles. There has been much speculation about what he might have been writing. I think it’s best to regard it as a tactic to buy time and defuse the situation. In between as the mob persists, Jesus gives his sentence: let the first stone be thrown by the one without sin. We have to hear that sentence addressed to us too, which is why the traditional title does not tell the full story. Just as last week we had to decide which son we align ourselves with, this week do we see ourselves with the woman or with the crowd, the mob. We live in a world where instant condemnation is all too frequent, where anger is stoked and encouraged by the media. Festering anger does not enable anyone to move on. Here each person does take responsibility once challenged by Jesus. So they slip away one by one. “Let each of you consider himself, let him enter into himself, ascend the judgment-seat of his own mind, place himself at the bar of his own conscience, oblige himself to confess. For he knows what he is: for no man knows the things of a man but the spirit of man which is in him. Each looking carefully into himself, finds himself a sinner. Yes, indeed. “, says St Augustine about this encounter.

Only at the end does the woman cease to be an object and become a person, a desperately needy person abandoned it seems by all. Except Jesus. He gently challenges her and we can hear the sadness in her “no one, sir”. Yet Jesus does not entirely let her off the hook. Go away and do not sin again are his final words to her. Here I follow two notable Catholic commentators by translating “again” instead of the more common “no more”. “Again” seems to me to be a more clear cut ending, rather as at the end of confession, the sacrament of reconciliation. Jesus gives the woman new life, a fresh start.

Someone who knows plenty about that is of course St Paul following his experience on the road to Damascus. In his letter to the Philippians he points out all the advantages he had as a Pharisee but now he counts everything as loss because of Christ and this leads into the reading.

Like the woman caught in adultery, Paul has discovered himself on the receiving end of a divine love that enables him to live the law in love. All he wants to know now is Christ and the power of his resurrection. He wants to share his sufferings if somehow he may attain the resurrection from the dead.

As we enter Holy Week we will reflect upon the journey of Jesus from Palm Sunday to Good Friday to Easter Day. We reflect too like St Paul on our own journey as followers and disciples of Jesus. This is a passage on which we can only reflect and pray ourselves.

As for St Paul so for us, the journey continues as we struggle for the prize of God’s upward calling. We hear the words of Jesus not to sin again because we know that in Jesus God has done a new deed, given us a new exodus.

Image credit: I stock photo .com