07Apr The 5th Sunday of Lent

07 April 2019.

1st Reading: Isaiah 43:16-21

The prophet promises the exiles a new Exodus

Thus says the Lord, who makes a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, who brings out chariot and horse, army and warrior; they lie down, they cannot rise, they are extinguished, quenched like a wick:

“Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
I will make a way in the wilderness
and rivers in the desert.

The wild animals will honour me,
the jackals and the ostriches;
for I give water in the wilderness,
rivers in the desert,
to give drink to my chosen people,
the people whom I formed for myself
so that they might declare my praise.”

Responsorial: Psalm 125

Response: The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy

When the Lord delivered Zion from bondage,
it seemed like a dream.
Then was our mouth filled with laughter,
on our lips there were songs. (R./)

The heathens themselves said:
‘What marvels the Lord worked for them!’
What marvels the Lord worked for us!
Indeed we were glad. (R./)

Deliver us, O Lord, from our bondage
as streams in dry land.
Those who are sowing in tears
will sing when they reap. (R./)

They go out, they go out, full of tears,
carrying seed for the sowing.
They come back, they come back, full of song,
carrying their sheaves. (R./)

2nd Reading: Philippians 3:8-14

Holiness is a gift, a sharing in Christ, in utter trust

I regard everything as loss because of the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and I regard them as rubbish, so that I may gain Christ and be found in him, 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. I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.

Gospel: John 8:1-11

Instead of judging, the accusers must examine themselves

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them.

The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before them all, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.

When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”


No more machismo

They brought in a woman they had caught in adultery. Three terms express their sense of dominance: “They caught her.” “They brought her.” “They made her stand before them all.” They bristled with righteous indignation as they asked Jesus for his view. In their eyes, her fate is sealed:  it must be death by stoning, according to the law. No one talks about the adulterous man involved. As always happens in a sexist society, the woman gets condemned and the man walks free. Their challenge to Jesus is head-on: “In the law, Moses has ordered us to stone women of this kind. What have you got to say?”  Jesus opposes such arrogance and machismo. No sentence of death comes from God. With admirable audacity, he brings in truth, justice and compassion to bear on the act of judgment: “Let the one among you who is guiltless be the first to throw a stone at her”.

The accusers go away shamefaced. They know that they are guilty of many things themselves. Then Jesus speaks with tender respect to the woman who has just escaped execution: “Neither do I condemn you”. He encourages her to make her gift of forgiveness the starting point for a new life: “Go away, and from this moment on, sin no more”.  That’s how Jesus is. Here, finally, is a man not conditioned by any oppressive law or power; a free, magnanimous individual who never hated or condemned, never returned evil for evil. In his defense of this sinner there is more truth and justice than in our resentful demands and name-calling.

Maybe we haven’t yet managed to unpack all the consequences in Jesus’ liberating action in the face of this woman’s oppression. Working in a Church that is directed and inspired mostly by men, we often fail to be aware of all the injustices that women keep suffering in all areas of life. One theologian spoke a few years ago about the revolution ignored by Christianity.

We still live in a society where women often cannot move about freely without fear of men. Rape, physical abuse, humiliation aren’t imaginary things. On the contrary, they form perhaps the most deeply rooted violence and the one that causes the most suffering. Doesn’t the suffering of women need to echo more strongly and more concretely in our church celebrations, and have a more important place in our work of social conscience-raising?   Above all, don’t we need to be closer to each oppressed woman in order to denounce abuses, offer an intelligent defense and effective protection? [J A Pagola]

The Pharisees’ error

What to make of the Pharisees in today’s confrontation? They caught a woman in the act of adultery and brought her into the Temple precincts, thronged with people, to shame her as publicly as possible. Then they wanted to carry out the death penalty as laid down in the Torah, namely death by stoning. As an added extra, they wanted to use the occasion to discredit Jesus in the eyes of his followers. “What have you to say?” they demand of him. If his response was simply, “Leave the woman along; let her go free,” they could accuse him of condoning adultery. But if he agreed with their sentence, he would be seen as lacking in mercy. Jesus saw through their plotting and made them withdraw in confusion.

What did Jesus write with his finger on the ground? The Gospel gives us a possible clue. It does not use the normal Greek word for “write” (graphein), but a compound word (kata-graphein) which means to draw up a condemnation. Possibly he may have listed on the ground some common sins against humanity, to make them think. At any rate, his challenge that the person who was without sin should cast the first stone met with no response. Although Jesus did not condemn the woman, neither did he excuse what she had done. “Don’t sin any more,” was both a pardon and a warning to her.

Like the Pharisees, we may be tempted to imagine a God in our own image and likeness, as a stern, punitive father, who can be persuaded to forgive only after our abject repentance. This kind of religion can be cold and loveless. And as St Paul says in the 2nd Reading, trying to relate to God just by strictly keeping the Law is an obsolete kind of religion. Only when we let God’s love, as seen in Christ, to embrace and change our heart, can we begin togrow.

To judge from today’s gospel, the worst of the seven deadly sins seems to be not lust, but pride. The Pharisees’ proud self-righteousness left them feeling no need to ask God for mercy. Like the woman in danger, we need to admit our own sins and pray for mercy rather than condemn others. Even when we fail in our ideals, we trust in the mercy God extends to the sinner. For even our sins make no difference to God’s enduring love for us.


Ag tagairt do soiscéal an lae inniu, is léir gur is measa an Bród mar peaca marfa ná Ainmhian. Bhí na Fairisínigh bródúil agus féin-cheartach agus níor bhraith siad gur raibh gá leo trócaire Dé a ghuí orthu féín. Dála an bhean a cháineadar, ní mór dúinne ár bpeacaí a admháil agus trócaire a impí ón Tiarna seachas droch bhail agus cáineadh a chaitheamh le daoine. Fiú nuair a theipeann orainn, bíodh muinín againn go bhfuil trócaire Dé i ndán do gach peacach. Dar le hÍosa, ainneoin ár bpeacaí-ne tá Dia i mbuan-grá linn.


St John Baptist de la Salle, Priest

Born at Rheims (France) in 1651; died at Rouen on this day in 1719. Ordained a priest in 1678 after seminary studies at Saint Sulpice in Paris. Pioneered schools for poor boys of the working classes, the training of teachers, and the care of disturbed children. Despite much internal conflict and external opposition, he formed his companions into the Order of Lasallians, or Brothers of the Christian Schools (Fratres Scholarum Christianarum).


3 Responses

  1. Joe O'Leary

    Law meets Gospel

    I had the impression that the gospels for the Sundays of Lent were taken from John, so that this Sunday we would be hearing about the raising of Lazarus; but in fact the Johannine gospels occur only in Year A (though there would be more room for them in Year B, given the brevity of Mark). This Sunday we do, however, have a text from John, but one generally regarded as a late interpolation (it is missing from some of the most important ane earliest manuscripts); it is sometimes put in double brackets (NRSV and recent Nestle-Aland editions), or printed as a footnote (RSV), or appended at the end of the Gospel (NEB) as in some early manuscripts. Some suggest that it is in fact a Lukan composition (in some early manuscripts it appears after Lk 21:38); this would make it fitting for Year C.

    The story of the woman taken in adultery is a parable about Law and Gospel. The Law is good and holy (Rom 7.12), but it is largely devoted to condemning sin, and that can spill over into condemning the sinner. The letter kills, the Spirit gives life (2 Cor 3:6); St Augustine remarks that the letter that kills is the Law without grace (De spiritu et littera, 20). The scene in today’s gospel shows the Law at its most graceless, as a letter that literally kills.

    Pharisees did not have the right to execute people, much less stone them for adultery, so their question might be designed to put Jesus in breach of Roman law, condoning behaviour like that of the lynch mob in the stoning of St Stephen. In any case the trick question puts him in a double bind: “either behave inhumanly or show that you disrespect the letter of the Law of Moses.” Jesus avoids the trap and answers the letter of the Law with what what he writes on the ground, imitating the inscription on the tablets of stone at Sinai. His writing reminds the Pharisees, who know the Law well, of another function of the Law: to convict everyone of sin. He raises himself for a moment to add the challenging word, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.” This sets them measuring their own consciences by the standard he sets sternly before them and which they are applying in a cruel and one-sided way to the woman. How often we did that in the past in Ireland, and how often we do it today in many situations!

    The role of judges is a treacherous one, for in applying justice to the weak from a position of unquestionable authority, they risk becoming unjust in that disproportion of power, and they must often wonder how things would look if they chastised their own hidden crimes as severely as the prisoner’s.

    Jesus returns to his writing. The puzzling gesture adroitly deflates the situation, and the Pharisees begin to reflect. Looking into the mirror of the Law, they slink away one by one, beginning with the oldest who gives them a good example of considered judgment. All are convicted of sin. Jesus does not even need to look up at them again; his silence says all.

    Luther considered the correct application of Law and Gospel to be the most difficult theological task. Well, Jesus gives a fine example of how to do it. “Relicti sunt duo, misera et misericordia” remarks St Augustine (two are left, the miserable and mercy). This is one of several private exchanges between Jesus and a woman in the Gospels (compare the Syro-Phoenician woman in Mark 7; Mary the mother of Jesus in John 2; Samaritan woman in John 4; Martha in John 11; Mary Magdalen in John 20); in each case one could associate the woman with the Church or with the soul.

    Jesus expresses the Gospel in the words, “Neither do I condemn you.” This is even more powerful than “Your sins are forgiven” (Mk 2:5), for it is a total abstention from judgement, a refusal to impute guilt. It is one of the most touching and gracious utterances in Scripture. In our obsession with justice we become stingy about forgiveness, making a big deal about forgiving others, sometimes on condition of an apology, as if we ourselves were not in equal need of forgiveness. Isn’t it more generous and gracious to simply refrain from counting up offences, taking a “Who am I to judge?” attitude (cf. Lk 12:14)?

    Ah yes, but he adds “Go, and sin no more!” people are quick to stress, in their fear that the text will be taken as a charter of laxism. The result of this precipitation often is that the word of Gospel that is the climax of the text is covered over again by a stress on the primacy of Law. It is true that Jesus does add a word of Law, but in a secondary place, and in a spirit of solicitude, as if to say “don’t get yourself into this kind of trouble again!” He is not taking back with one had what he gave with the other. Jesus says nothing about any punishment of the woman, or any penance; he uses the Law not to punish but to rehabilitate, to welcome the person back into the community. (If the first use of the Law is to convict us of sin as a harsh pedagogue, it also has a positive use as a moral guide for the justified sinner on the path of righteousness and holiness, and the Protestant Confessions add another use of the Law in the civic realm.)

    People will say, “we can’t go round letting sinners off the hook, at a time when basic moral precepts are held in contempt!” But that has always been the perception that fuelled legalism and judgmentalism. It creates a hellish legal system that values punishment over forgiveness and rehabilitation. But without the humanity of the Gospel there can be no wise and humane application of Law. Law without Gospel is lethal, as we see in the culture of capital punishment.

  2. Pádraig McCarthy

    In Isaiah, the people face a hopeless situation. If only the God of the Exodus would act like in the past!
    That God is still “I am! It is I. I am with you! I am here for you.”
    In John 8, the situation is hopeless. They held the woman in her sin.
    We often hold people in their sin – we continue to judge them by the wrong they have done in the past. “Whose sins you retain, they are retained.”
    We hold ourselves also in our sin. Sin retains its hold over us. Knowing this, it is difficult not to hold others in their sin, to see them first of all in the light of their wrongdoing.
    The witnesses to the crime are the ones charged with throwing the first stone (Deuteronomy 17:7). But we are witnesses to our own sin.
    “Does anyone condemn you?” “No one, Lord.” “Neither do I condemn you.” Jesus does not hold us in our sin. He is also concerned that our sin does not retain its hold over us. “Sin no more.”
    What about those who left? The question is addressed also to them: “Does anyone condemn you? Neither do I condemn you. Sin no more.”
    The words are addressed to us too. Jesus doesn’t do hopeless. Neither need we.

  3. Paddy Ferry

    Thank you, Joe for that wonderful reflection on today’s Gospel and Padraig’s too. Your thoughts would have provided me with the basis of a wonderful sermon today, Joe, if I had been our parish priest. I read this Gospel twice this morning in the homes of housebound parishioners to whom I was bringing Holy Communion and each time I was puzzled as to why and what Jesus was writing on the ground. So, you have enlightened me once again, Joe.
    I especially appreciated your final paragraph.

    Pádraig, when I read “That God is still “I am! It is I. I am with you! I am here for you” my first thought was “but who or what”.
    I have still not finished Diarmuid O’Murchu’s “Incarnation. A New Evolurtionary Threshold” but I am making good progress.

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