Homilies written and presented by Monsignor Peter Magee
Homily 3-28-2004 Lent V
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Sunday 5(C) Lent: Read John 8, 1-11

 

                “Let he who is without sin, throw the first stone.” The challenge of Jesus to the scribes and Pharisees is itself “lapidary”, like the direct hit of a stone. It penetrated deeply into their consciences that they might understand their own hypocrisy. Think what joy there would have been if, instead of retiring to lick their wounds, they had said to Jesus, “we have sinned, have mercy on us”! Hypocrisy is the unspoken elephant in everyone’s heart, except, of course, the Hearts of Jesus and of His Blessed Mother. In our secret selves, we can relish hypocrisy, because it gives us a sense of superiority and self-righteousness; it fires the zealot in us to show outrage against the sins of others and holy fanaticism for the love of God’s law. At the same time, we hate it because it can betray or blackmail us at any time. Hypocrisy convinces us we have the right and duty to be the conscience of others, as if we ourselves were both the inner and the outer voice of God and, so, in no need of a conscience of our own. Indeed, hypocrisy would put us above God and others, for we assume for ourselves the task of judging when God’s law applies (just in case He is not aware of it) and how and to whom it applies.

                Those who brought the woman to Jesus were not wrong in their knowledge of what the law said or in their assertion about what she had done. No doubt many others had perished at their hands for the same thing. What they failed to understand was that Jesus knew the reality of sin to extend well beyond a certain number of prescribed, external acts, without excluding those acts. Sin is born in the heart and, while it might pass through the body in actions and words, it returns to the heart with triumphant, reinforced pride. Jesus also brought with Him a new and more radical way of destroying sin, yet sparing the sinner. It is the way of mercy and truth, revealed in His most comforting words: “Does no-one condemn you? Neither do I.” That is mercy. “Go and sin no more.” That is truth. Jesus aims for the heart to pierce it with the sword of His saving word. In the instance we are considering, it is as if He says: yes, you have sinned; yes, your sin must be condemned; but, yes, I condemn your sin by taking it on myself; yes, by my mercy, I restore you to freedom from sin; go, and stay free in the freedom of my mercy and truth. The accused, the condemned, is no longer the sinner, but Jesus, the sinless one. The sin He expels from us through mercy, He takes vicariously on Himself. By His sacrificial death, however, He expels that sin from Himself for ever. With the death of Christ, sin has thus been expelled from creation; with His death, there is a new creation. Those who freely cling to sin are thus destined to remain in the old creation, a creation which is passing away and will ultimately be destroyed. Those who freely cling to Christ in His and in their own death will be “born again”, be re-created, be redeemed, be raised up from the dead. Such are the deep and eternal truths of salvation contained in seed form in the encounter between Jesus, the adulterous woman and the scribes and Pharisees.

                It must be said again. Jesus would have given forgiveness to each of those who had a stone in his hand, had he just dropped it and reached out to Him. He did all He could do to cause an earthquake in their consciences and make them come to their senses, as did the prodigal son, but they would not, did not, come to Him; instead, they left Him, as did perhaps the prodigal son’s elder brother after disagreeing with his Father. Such is the drama of human freedom. Of course, one might argue that the woman did not come to Him either; is it fair that she was forgiven and they not? We can only surmise how Jesus knew she was open to Him, apart, of course, from stating that the only person to whom Jesus was ever unfair was Himself.

                She did not confess her sin in the way we would do in the confessional. But, in her case, was there any need? Caught “in the act”, and with no sign of denying it in front of her accusers or Jesus, her confession would have been superfluous. More importantly, however, she hears the dialogue between Jesus and her accusers, and realizes with astonishment that Jesus sees far beyond external actions to the heart of all. She perceives His divine mercy; she perceives His saving intent; she perceives that He perceives the truth of all motivations; and, perhaps for the first time in her sorry life, she begins to know the joy, the hope of truly being loved for who she is, not for what she has to offer. Here before her was the only man who had the right to lift a stone and to condemn her; and He did not do it, because He came, not to condemn, but to seek out and save the lost.

                Note that Jesus does not simply “err on the side of mercy”, in a kind of, “we’ll let it go this time” attitude. He is not turning a blind eye; He sees very clearly, and He speaks very clearly. He brings to light the sin of both the accusers and of the accused. The one party He cannot forgive because they will not confess their sins clearly even by the gesture of drawing close to Him; the other He can and does forgive, and forgive mightily, for the reasons already described. Mercy first brings to light what is dark; it then absorbs and destroys the evil and restores new life to the one who had been its victim. Mercy does not highlight the dark for the dark’s sake, but for the light’s sake. Mercy accuses so as to lead the accused to life, not to death, unless that is what the accused freely prefers. Except for the case of those who are physically or morally incapable of it, the Church, because Christ Himself, requires us to reveal, to confess, to bring to the light, our sins so that we can be forgiven them. If we feel humiliated by confessing, the humiliation is the result of our sins, not of the sacrament. You cannot blame the doctor for your sickness. Jesus is not to blame for the woman’s adultery. It is not for no reason that sin seeks to remain hidden, secret, sly and elusive. In this way, it can achieve its aim of doing more damage to the sinner, like a tumor infiltrating the soul. The more you resist confession because you are embarrassed or humiliated, the more effective sin is doing its sorry and destructive job. How easy it is to rationalize not confessing, sometimes even with motives we call spiritual. Whenever we confess our sin with sincerity and humility, the Jesus of our text returns in the person of the priest, and the hope and joy which the adulterous woman had, will be ours. The soul of the one who is not at rights with God will necessarily flag. But the humble penitent will be renewed with the strength and vitality of the eagle.

                In life there are many things we would like to forget, and maybe even do forget, because the sharp pain they bring is too much to bear. Yet, the more we “forget” them, the more they can hurt, for they seek remembrance, expression and resolution. They seek to give back to our love at least part of the self we have forgotten. Some of those things are not our fault, some are partly our fault and some are completely our fault. But they all hurt. You will recall the story of Thomas doubting that Jesus was risen until he had touched the scars on His body for himself. We call these the glorious wounds of Jesus, and certainly none of them can be said to be His fault. Jesus still carries in His risen body those wounds he received for our sake. In some way, they are the jewels on His trophy. By those wounds, we are healed; in those jewels we are made rich. Perhaps this should be our model, our way of treating our own wounds. Our inner self still carries the scars, the wounds of our lives. They may not make living impossible, but they do make happiness very difficult. While we cannot spend our time “licking” those wounds, we might need to try to understand them and how they have made us who we are, or who we are not, today. The adulterous woman’s wounds became her doorway to hope, joy and, we might surmise, healing. None of this could have happened, however, without Him who is “the Door”, the holiest of all holy doors: is this the “Door” of the confessional? While it is true that sacramental absolution is necessary for the healing of the wounds that are our own fault, we should remember that Jesus does not limit the power of His merciful love only to those wounds. In the introduction to the formula of sacramental absolution, the priest says: “Through the ministry of the Church, may God give you pardon and peace.” Peace! Peace with God, first of all, but a peace which, like a good nuclear explosion, mushrooms and fans outwards to the whole of our inner selves. Christ sees all the different types and intensities of wound which afflict our spirits. Evil of one kind or another is at the root of them all and, as we pray in the Mass, Jesus comes to “deliver us from every evil and protect us from all anxiety”.

                I realize that understanding one’s own suffering and confusion is neither pleasant nor easy. Yet somehow we can never quite fully and truly be who we are unless we try to understand and accept it all. Acceptance is very hard without understanding, and understanding oneself is tough work. Jesus, by the power of His word, which understands all things, can and will lead us through the valleys and the shadows of death within us, to reach calm waters. He does not love just the part of us we present to Him. Nor is it fair to say to Him, “Lord I give you my whole self” and then turn from Him when He seeks to reveal to us who that whole self actually is. In contemplating us, His eyes, alight with delight, see the deep beauty within every soul, and His Heart desires each soul to work with Him to discover that beauty for itself. He does not just see the self we offer Him today; He sees in one merciful regard the whole fascinating mystery of the unfolding self that each of us has become, from the moment of conception, through all life’s yesterdays until the present moment. While we carry within us the memory of our whole lives, but cannot or do not want to see entire sections of that memory, Jesus does see them, He remembers everything. He is the one who can help us find and redeem our lost memory, the memory we either threw away in shame or disgust, or was somehow taken from us by others. If we let Him, He will insert our remembering into His remembering; He will enable us to remember who we truly are and are to become; He will heal all memories in the memory of Himself, of His unconditional love, of His unconditional availability and of His unconditional forgiveness. Ultimate healing of the human being is only possible in the ultimate human being, Jesus the loving Christ, the Prince of Peace.

                Although we may have good reason to fear sufferings, past, present or future, there is, with Christ, ultimately, nothing to fear. Jesus will not stone us. The only stone He gives us is Peter, the Rock, standing on whom we need fear not even the gates of hell. Should the whole world itself condemn us for our flagrant sins and justly demand our condemnation, the Christ in whom our hearts have sincerely trusted and hoped will bid us joyful welcome through the gates of Paradise. There is an adulterous woman in us all; there is a scribe and Pharisee in us all; and, if we can but dare to hope it, there is a Christ in us all. Once we embrace this three-fold truth, there will be no more accusers or accused, no more adultery, no more stones. Instead, we will all be strong enough to drop them, to reach out for His rescuing hand, for one another’s hands and maybe, then, be able to join our own hands in prayer to the Merciful Jesus, a prayer which is, at last, free from all hypocrisy.