Fifth Sunday of Lent

Homily by Father Denis Stanley

Let me paint the scene …the terrible scene

And making her stand there in full view of everybody, they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery…”

Think of the shame – if we can. It’s really not that difficult with many a public person today dragged through the public arena of newspapers and television, “in full view of everyone…caught in the very act” of some shameful sexual sin – like the woman in today’s gospel.

The man she was sleeping with seems to have had ready access to an emergency exit, leaving her in the cruel hands of the scribes and Pharisees. They make this story even worse, using her as a pawn in a game they are playing to trap Jesus. a scene of utter shame, real fear, anger, vengeance and the threat of violence, make this opening part of today’s gospel truly frightening. I hope we can feel it.

Complicating this terrible story is the demand now thrown at Jesus to solve this cruel dilemma. Those angry men demand, “what have you to say?” But caught in the middle of this emotional drama Jesus remains calm, yet engaged. He knows the human heart. He is not fazed by sin, not shocked by it. Yes, he judges, but he judges wisely. “let the one without sin cast the first stone … does no one condemn you? Go and sin no more.

It’s hard to be calm and wise when we too find ourselves in the middle of such an angry storm about what someone has done or suffered and we are asked, “what are you going to do about it? What do you think?” It’s hard to engage, to help, to try and sort things out, to feel for the sufferings of others. It’s easy to be panicked by the anger of others. Is it better to run away or better to remain firm, calmly and faithfully struggling with applying the mysteries of justice and mercy?

The last few years the community’s gaze has been directed squarely on the sins of the church – “in full view of everyone – caught in the very act”. A lot of us are reeling at what has happened in the past, humiliated just by being Catholics, of being betrayed. That is our reality. We are shamed. We feel people’s anger. Some have chosen to walk away, no longer to belong. Yet you and i are here – firm, calm and faithful – even in or fears and vulnerability wanting to do all we can to imitate Jesus.

I do not think it is enough simply to weather the storm, to sit it out, to wish it go away, to avoid the pain and the bewilderment. Because as in the gospel today, Jesus remains present right in the middle of all this, calm, wise, engaged; calling and enabling us even to grow through this, to wrestle with applying the mysteries of mercy and justice.

From the midst of his own suffering, St Paul in the profound letter to the Philippians today, prays, “all I want is to know Christ”. That, I hope, goes for all of us. We can know Jesus as it were from the outside, looking in. But that will not do. Jesus offers us the opportunity to know him from the inside, to share his experience, his anguish, his costly faithfulness to his mission revealing the heart of his father. That’s how we, like him and with him, become fully alive, sharing his suffering so as to share his resurrection.

Paul knew that suffering in some shape or other is inevitable. Paul wanted to respond to the inevitable sufferings of life in the way that Jesus did, reproducing the pattern of his death. What is this “pattern of his death?” It is his steady, wise faithfulness to love, to mercy and justice.

In that terrible scene painted at the beginning of today’s gospel, we see how Jesus remained calmly and wisely faithful to justice and mercy; the anger of the scribes and Pharisees didn’t frighten him off and he wasn’t shocked by the sin of the woman.

In the perfect storm of the cross Jesus could have responded with bitterness and despair, refusing to forgive the hardness of heart and blindness that surrounded him. Instead, he chose to keep faithfully to his message of mercy and love, to continue to trust god, to hope and even offer forgiveness to his murderers and treacherous former friends.

Jesus offers us the opportunity to know him from the inside, to share his experience, his anguish, his costly faithfulness to his mission revealing the heart of his father. In a moment we shall stand and say, “I believe…” I believe in what? “I believe nothing can happen that will outweigh the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my lord”.