13 March 2016

Is your name written in the dirt?

NB. I was asked to celebrate and preach the 7.30am Mass for the nuns.

5th Sunday of Lent
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
Monastery of OLR, Summit, NJ

Standing before him in the temple area is a woman accused of adultery. Standing behind her are her accusers, the scribes and Pharisees who hope to trip him up with a tricky legal question: should this woman be stoned to death according to the Law of Moses? The woman's accusers present their bear-trap case to him and then wait for his reply. What does he do? He bends down and writes in the dirt with his finger. Befuddled by this strange behavior, the woman's accusers continue to press their questions and demand answers. Finally, he straightens up and says to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then, he bends down to write again in the dirt with his finger. The woman's accusers drift away, leaving Jesus and the woman alone. This is what happens when the demands of justice collide with the need for mercy; or rather, what happens when our need for justice collides with God's demand that we freely grant mercy. Justice—to be truly just—must flow from righteousness, a righteousness that no man or woman possesses. The best we can do is imitate Christ and grant mercy. 

Jesus and the adulterous woman are left alone in the temple area. Her accusers have fled b/c they know the Law as well as Jesus does. They know that their accusations against her—though true—are also incomplete. According to her accusers, the woman was “caught in the very act of committing adultery.” Where is her accomplice? The Law requires that a man caught in adultery be stoned as well. Since the woman was “caught in the act,” why is she not being accused by those who caught her? The Law requires that the witness to a capital crime throw the first stone. When Jesus challenges the accusers to carry out the death sentence, “in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.” Pouring salt in their wounded pride, Jesus publicly accuses the accusers of being sinners themselves and forces them to acknowledge their sinfulness. He knows the Law as well as they do, so he publicly humiliates them all by exposing their hypocrisy under the Law. How can they accuse this woman of violating the Law when they themselves violate the Law by accusing her as they have? Justice—to be truly just—must flow from righteousness, a righteousness that no man or woman possesses. 

Jesus shows the accusers that they are unjust by challenging them to follow the Law. They can't. Doing so would condemn them under the Law. To underscore his own accusation, Jesus writes in the dirt, following the Sabbath Law that forbids the work of writing on paper on a holy day but allows writing in the dirt. Though John doesn't tell us what Jesus is writing in the dirt, tradition tells us that he is alluding to the prophet, Jeremiah. Jeremiah cries out, “O Lord, all who forsake You will be put to shame. Those who turn away on earth will be written down, because they have forsaken the fountain of living water. . .” Another translation reads, “The rebels shall be enrolled in the netherworld.” To have your name written in the dust is to be enrolled in the netherworld as a shameful rebel against God. The woman's accusers watch Jesus writing in the dirt; remember Jeremiah's righteousness cry to God; and then ask themselves: are we prepared to be consigned to the netherworld as rebels against God? “In response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.” Confronted—even subtly—by their own failures in holiness, the scribes and Pharisees simply fade away to plot another trap for the Lord. 

The story of the adulterous woman and Jesus' merciful response to her sin can be a trap for us. Has been a trap for us. When finally left alone with the woman, Jesus asks her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She answers, “No one, sir.” Jesus is the only one left to pass judgment, the only one truly qualified to condemn her for her sin. He says, instead, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” The trap for us here is to read Jesus' challenge to the accusers and this final act of mercy as a judgment against calling out sin. In other words, b/c Jesus shows the accusers to be sinful themselves and b/c he does not condemn the woman, we're to believe that no one should ever call a sin Sin. When the Pope or our bishops challenge abortion or same-sex marriage, how often do we hear the culture respond, “They shouldn't throw stones given their track record on sexual abuse”? Somehow Jesus' challenge to the righteousness of the woman's accusers has been perverted into a blanket denial that sin can be named Sin. What's missing here is Jesus final word to the woman, “Go and sin no more.” He grants mercy to the person while naming sin Sin. 

And that's the difference btw man's justice and God's mercy. Man's justice condemns both the crime and the criminal. God's mercy passes sentence on the sin and forgives the sinner. By forgiving the sinner, God does what God Is: Love. Forgiveness of sin, showing mercy to the sinner is in no way an admission that sin isn't sin. The righteous do not need mercy, therefore, only the unrighteous may receive it; that is, only those found guilty of sin require mercy in the first place. It's vital to our growth in holiness that we understand how God's mercy relieves us of the burden of sin. The weight of disobedience is crushing. Under the heavy load of sin, we cannot follow after Christ; we cannot complete our mission “to go and do likewise” if we are suffering in slavery to our disobedience. This is why the Father sent to Son to lift this burden off our backs. Christ has removed the yoke of sin and we are now free to follow him. When Jesus refuses to condemn the adulterous woman all he is doing is freeing her so that she might choose to take up his yoke and do the joyous work of witnessing to God's mercy. Adultery is still adultery. But no sin—not even adultery—can forever chain a soul in servitude when the Father's forgiveness is freely offered and freely received. 

Lent is our time to stare intently at the dirt to see if our names are written there. But the time for watching the dirt is almost over. We are rapidly approaching the empty tomb on Easter morning. Ahead of us, drawing us in, is the emptied cave where Jesus went to rest. But for our sakes, he didn't rest. Instead, he rose; he rose to the Father and sent his Holy Spirit to dwell among us, strengthening us along his Way, encouraging us in our temptation to despair for a lack of holiness. Lent is a time set aside for us to search the dirt for our names. It's that time in our lives when we set ourselves against ourselves to fast, pray, give alms; to acknowledge our total dependency on God; to give Him thanks and praise for His blessings; and to generously share those blessings. If it seems that we pay too much attention to sin during Lent, remember: God's mercy frees us; His forgiveness unburdens us. But without the confession of our sins, without acknowledging our sins, we cannot receive His mercy. No man or woman possesses the righteousness required to free themselves from sin, or to dispense others from the rot of their sins. Christ alone is able to say, “I do not condemn you. Go, and sin no more.”

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