5th Sunday of Lent C

When they caught the woman “in the very act of committing adultery,” what made the Pharisees think they had the perfect plan to ensnare Jesus?  This is clearly not about the law.  If it had been, they could have enforced their brutal punishment on the spot when they first apprehended her. (By the way, the guy got away scot free.  Not shocking.)   No, this was a trap to get Jesus to deny the Law of Moses right in the Temple, at the heart of what it means to be Jewish.

You see, the Pharisees had been studying Jesus for a long time, following him and asking questions.  They believe they had found his weakness.  He was too merciful.  They knew he had claimed the authority to forgive sins.  They had heard him say to his disciples they should forgive others seventy times seven.  They had witnessed his astonishing and scandalizing fair and open treatment of women.  They had heard stories like the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son and know that Jesus would choose mercy every time.  Now was their opportunity.  With this woman caught in adultery, they had the clear law on their side, Moses on their side and the Temple on their side.  After all, the Pharisees lived for the law and its enforcement.  They were not interested in making exceptions to the law.  They hated the way Jesus practiced mercy.  It threatened them.

It seems that Jesus had only two choices.  Show mercy and defiantly deny the Law of Moses which he followed and treasured or pick up a stone himself and start hurling.  Of course, it always seems that when Jesus has only two choices, he does the third thing.  So first, he chooses time.  Don’t you wish you had the wisdom when confronted with the overwhelming to choose time as well?  He bends down and writes on the ground as they demand an answer from him.  When he straightens up, he responds with an idea so creative, it reminds us creativity is that the only remedy for violence.  Jesus asks a bloodthirsty, plotting and angry mob to reflect as he challenges them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then, with great courage, he gives them time and resumes, all Clint Eastwood like, writing on the ground.  They go “away one by one.”

For my whole life, I had assumed they had left because of their guilt.  But with this reading, I paid attention to the elders leaving first, the wisest and most respected among them.  Maybe there is more than guilt going on here.  Maybe they reflected on and appreciated the mercy they had received in life.  The many times God had forgiven them.  The times their life was spared. The moments they knew the love of God.  Their reflection led to the recognition that mercy is the ultimate law of God.  They understood they could not take a breath without the mercy of God.

Many people have a fine habit of doing an examination of conscience at night.  They look back on their day and think of when they might have sinned, hurt someone or not paid enough attention.  They ask God for forgiveness and go to sleep with a clear conscience.  But I suggest one more strategy for sleeping even better.  Have an examination of mercy.  Consider all the ways that you loved and were loved that day and let it wash over you.  This weekend, I could recall how happy I was to have breakfast with a friend I had not seen for months; I was in awe of a rush of former students anxious to honor our own Melanie Anchukaitis as they sang their hearts out for her at Notre Dame Bishop Gibbons and the contentment in her face.  My examination would include spending time with another friend after the show as we got something to eat.  (The mercy thing is not always good for my diet or my sleep.)  And finally, the wedding of John and Jaclyn, who I have known and treasured for all ten years of their relationship.  I will never forget their heads bowed in prayer, the light in their eyes as they laughed and cried and the hope that radiated from their union.

What will be part of your examination of mercy tonight?  Besides this great homily, what will you marvel at from among God’s gifts?  Did your child say that they loved you?  Did you touch someone and they let you know?  Did someone touch you and you let them know?  Did you look outside and see a color you had never quite seen before?  All these are among a hundred moments of beauty which brush by us each day.

Back to our story though, for it is not quite done.  After everyone has left, Jesus is left alone with the woman and we suddenly remember that he can condemn the woman for Jesus is without sin.  He has the right to exact punishment, but he is full of mercy.  He lets her go saying, “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”  He is convinced that the reason she will change is not because of her guilt, or her getting caught or the harrowing experience of nearly dying.  No, it is this act of mercy that will change her life.  Isn’t that what changes our lives as well?  Shouldn’t that be the way we change the lives of others?

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