Fifth Sunday of Lent First Reading: Isaiah 43:16-21 Responsorial: Psalm 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6 Second Reading: Philippians 3:8-14 Gospel Passage: John 8:1-11
We all know what happens when we place no limits on our appetites. If we eat without sense and indulge ourselves at every turn, we will destroy our figure and our health. We know that human beings are prone to addiction and compulsion, and that some substances must be handled with great care and others avoided entirely. To do otherwise risks self-destruction and danger to others. We know that we must impose discipline on ourselves in the living of life if we are to survive in a competitive world.
In every important area of our lives, we learn that we must regulate our choices and discipline our impulses. This need has very practical basis, to do so is good for us, good for those closest to us, and good for the community and the world. So how is it that when it comes to human sexuality in our culture, society asserts the opposite? We are bombarded with sexual content and told that we can and should indulge ourselves whenever and wherever possible. In fact, we are told that such indulgence is the “healthy” way to approach human sexuality.
The result is a terribly destructive set of ironies in which “healthy” attitudes towards sex result in the destruction of trust, the breakup of families, and the objectification and exploitation of human beings. When did exercising will power over impulses become “repression” and the manic indulgence of every compulsion become “freedom?”
The Gospel passage for this Sunday is the memorable account of Jesus’ deliverance of a woman caught in adultery. It is easy for us to understand the message of the story: Jesus exercises compassion that liberates people from sin, and we must avoid the sin of self-righteousness. But look further, and you will see that those who drag the woman before Jesus are not really concerned with the woman. They are merely using her and her tragic circumstances to test Jesus. Jesus is the only One who notices and addresses the woman.
Jesus’ care for the woman is deeply moving and I am sure that all of us can identify with her and recognize the magnitude of the deliverance that Jesus offers. We can probably also recognize ourselves in those in the crowd, clinging to their rocks. We too have short memories when it comes to our sins. But as Jesus releases the woman from condemnation, He does something else. He commands her to sin no more. He loves her in the most transformative way possible: in the truth. He sees that sin has done more to her than the rocks could ever achieve and He wishes to liberate her.
The idea that God intervenes to liberate and empower us is not new in Jesus’ ministry. In the first reading, we hear the prophet Isaiah offer a surprising message. The story of the Exodus is the foundational story of Israel. It was, and is, a key feature of Israel’s self understand. Yet Isaiah calls upon the people to forget those events of deliverance. He does so because he wants the people to understand that God is still acting for them in the present moment – in their moment of exile and need in Babylon. Isaiah wants them to see that God is doing something new so that they themselves will become a new people.
Paul likewise summoned his fellow Christians to newness. Paul had a special affection for the Philippians and his letter to them is filled with beautiful words of encouragement and exhortation. They were suffering persecution and he found himself writing from prison and in danger of death. Under those circumstances, the essentials become very clear. In this passage, Paul speaks to them of the one an only essential in the Christian life, communion with the Lord Jesus. In asking the Philippians to live with the same self-emptying love and humility evident in the life of Jesus, Paul is asking them to discover their authentic humanity. Paul has hopes for a future with the Lord, but he knows that even now, the believer can find the grace to live free of the destructive power of sin.
We live in a society that has confused indulgence with liberation. We come to the Lord Jesus because we know that in Him we find our true selves and our only hope. We approach with confidence because we know that he will show us the same compassion he demonstrated to the woman caught in adultery. As we rejoice in knowing that we are released from condemnation, may we also listen to that other side of the coin: “sin no more.” In that command lies the invitation to true freedom: the capacity to exercise free will, even over our own desires.