5th SUNDAY OF LENT (Cycle C)

Readings:
Isaiah 43:16-21
Psalm 126:1-6
Philippians 3:8-14
John 8:1-11

Abbreviations: NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

God's divine plan for mankind is revealed in the two Testaments and that is why we read and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095). 

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings ~ God Prepares the Way
Life is a constant struggle, but today's readings encourage us to be optimistic and to have confidence that no matter what we face in life God is with us.  He is willing to forgive our sins and to make the way to restore us to fellowship with Him.  In the First Reading the people of God in exile in Babylon received hope from the Book of the prophet Isaiah and the promise that God would not forget them.  The time would come when they could forget the sad events of the past that led to their exile and look to God's promise of restoration as He prepared the way for their return to their land. 

In the Psalms reading, as pilgrims make the journey to the holy city of Jerusalem, they remember the event of the restoration of the covenant people after the Babylonian exile.  They feel the same joy that the exiles felt in traveling the way God prepared for them, just as the pilgrims experience their joyful journey to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh in His holy Temple. 

In the Second Reading St. Paul continues the theme in a call for the same unshakable faith in God to prepare out path and to guide us to salvation.  Paul tells us to forget about what we have endured in the past and to push forward on our journey of faith.  Paul assures Christians that we travel the path God has prepared for us with the promise that, no matter what hardships we face in life, the trials we endure are worth the promised prize at the end of our journey that is our eternal salvation in Christ Jesus. 

The way God prepares for us is a new Exodus liberation.  He redeems us from bondage to sin and death through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Like the woman accused of adultery in today's Gospel Reading, God makes a way for us like He made a way for the accused woman's repentance and salvation through the intervention of God the Son.  The Pharisees tested Jesus by asking Him to judge the case of a woman accused of adultery.  Her suffering may have been of her own making, but that does not mean that God will not offer her His grace to be restored and forgiven.  Like the woman in the Gospel reading, God urges all of us to receive His mercy by repenting our sins and making our commitment to sin no more as He makes the way for us on our journey to eternal salvation.

Isaiah 43:16-21 (NJB) ~ God's Mighty Works for Israel in the Past Repeated
16 Thus says Yahweh, who made a way [makes a way] through the sea, a path on the raging waters, 17 who led out chariot and horse together with an army of picked troops: they lay down never to rise again, they were snuffed out, put out like a wick.  18 No need to remember past events, no need to think about what was done before.  19 Look, I am doing something new, now it emerges; can you not see it?  Yes, I am making a road in the desert and rivers in wastelands.  20 The wild animals will honor me, the jackals and the ostriches, for bestowing water in the desert and rivers on the wastelands for my people, my chosen one, to drink.  21 The people I have shaped for myself will broadcast my praises. [...] = literal Hebrew translation, IBHE, vo. III, page 1692.

The prophet Isaiah had revealed to the covenant people that God will use Babylon as His instrument of judgment to punish Israel/Judah for abandoning their covenant with Yahweh and for the many sins the people in their stubbornness refused to repent.  The Babylonians will conquer them, and they will be taken away into exile. But, Isaiah told the people not to lose hope, for when full atonement was made, God would prepare the way for the covenant people to return to their land.

Isaiah reminded the covenant people in the same passage that in the past God redeemed them from slavery in Egypt and created a free nation as His chosen people.  He also reminded them of what great works God had done for them in the crossing of the Red Sea and the destruction of Pharaoh's army. The use of the present tense in verse 16 in the literal Hebrew "who makes a way" is deliberate.  God's work of salvation in the Exodus liberation is not all in the past but is going to be repeated—the Exodus liberation is a pattern in salvation history.  For example, Jesus' work of redemption in Luke 9:31 is described as His "exodus" in the Greek text of the New Testament: "...and they were speaking of His exodus which he was to accomplish in Jerusalem."

18 No need to remember past events, no need to think about what was done before.  19 Look, I am doing something new, now it emerges; can you not see it?  Yes, I am making a road in the desert and rivers in wastelands.
The past mighty works of God in the Exodus liberation will pale in comparison to the "something new" in the greater works of God in making a way for the people in a promised new Exodus out of Babylon (verse 19).  The "road in the desert" is the path God will create for His people to return to their homeland as He guides them and gives them water to sustain them on the journey—"water in the desert" (verse 20) like the Exodus miracle in Exodus 17:1-7.

The Catechism quotes Isaiah 43:19 in CCC 711: "'Behold, I am doing a new thing.'  Two prophetic lines were to develop, one leading to the expectation of the Messiah, the other pointing to the announcement of a new Spirit.  They converge in the small Remnant, the people of the poor, who await in hope the 'consolation of Israel' and 'the redemption of Jerusalem.'"  

This oracle is to fill the people with hope that they will survive the Babylonian captivity and God will prepare the way for them to return home.  In it Isaiah presents the Exodus liberation as the prototype of every act of liberation brought about by Yahweh in salvation history.  But the future exodus liberation from Babylon will be "new"—surpassing all that happened in the past (verses 18-19).  This is the doctrinal core teaching of the third part of the Book of Isaiah called "Book of Consolation" in chapters 40:1-48:22.

Responsorial Psalm 126:1-6 ~ The Joyful Journey of the Redeemed
Response: "The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy."
 
1 When the LORD brought back the captives of Zion, we were like men dreaming.  2 Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with rejoicing.
Response:
2b Then they said among the nations, "The LORD has done great things for them."  3 The LORD has done great things for us; we are glad indeed.
Response:
4 Restore our fortunes, O LORD, like the torrents in the southern desert.  5 Those that sow in tears shall reap rejoicing.
Response:
6 Although they go forth weeping, carrying the seed to be sown, they shall come back rejoicing, carrying their sheaves.
Response:

This psalm is one of the "Songs of Ascents" that the covenant people sang on their pilgrim journeys to the holy city of Jerusalem.  The psalm celebrates the memory of the return of the people to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile in the 6th century BC, after seventy years in exile, as God made a way home for them as He promised in the writings of the prophets. 

As the pilgrims reach the city, they relive the joy felt by those returning from the exile, and they remember the amazement of the Gentile nations who witnessed their return and the mighty work of Israel's God on behalf of His people (verses 1-3).  In verses 4-6 their song of joy changes to a petition for the Lord God to "restore our fortunes" that can also be read as "change our lot."  The pilgrims ask God to bless their journey to salvation, restoring them with His spirit, just as He blessed the path He made for the return of the exiles in giving them rain in the desert to restore the land so they could survive the journey.  They have confidence that God will change the sorrows/"tears" they experience in life to gladness, like the farmer who struggles to sow his seed that one day yields a bountiful harvest.

We must have the same faith and trust in God as we make our journey through the wilderness of this life on our way to our ultimate salvation in the Promised Land of Heaven.  God has prepared our way—our "way" is the path set for us by Jesus Christ who is the "Way, the Truth and the Life" (Jn 14:6).

Philippians 3:8-14 ~ Life with Christ
8 I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.  For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, 9 that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God, depending on faith 10 to know him and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death, 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.  12 It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus.  13 Brothers and sisters, I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession.  Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead.  14 I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God's upward calling, in Christ Jesus.

St. Paul shares with the Christian community at Philippi his optimism for his future.  He writes to them that whatever success he may have had in his life before becoming a Christian is worthless compared to the blessings he has gained in belonging to Christ.

9 that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God, depending on faith...
The difference between righteousness according to the Mosaic Law and the righteousness imparted by Christ forms the entire subject of St. Paul's letters to the Christians of Galatia and Rome.  St. Paul is making the distinction between "a righteousness of my own" that is obtained through one's own efforts, and the gift of grace that comes from God.  The righteousness the covenant people obtained by Mosaic Law was good; it served as a tutor and a guide in preparation for the Gospel of salvation.  However, it was not sufficient to give one a share in the glory of Jesus Christ, to impart the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, nor could it give the promise of eternal salvation (CCC 1963-64).

10 to know him and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death 11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Paul is not referring to the general resurrection of both saved and the damned (Jn 5:29; 1 Thes 4:16; 2 Thes 1:7-10; Rev 20:11-15), but to the true resurrection of the saints who are separated from the spiritually dead and who will enjoy life with Christ (Lk 20:35).  If we are willing to share in Christ's suffering in our journey through this life, we will also merit through His sufferings the promise to share in His resurrection from the dead.

12 It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus.  13 Brothers and sisters, I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession.  Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead.  14 I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God's upward calling, in Christ Jesus.
Paul is referring to his conversion experience on the Damascus road which he retells three times in Acts of Apostles (Acts 9:1-19; 22:4-16; 26:9-18).  His point is that his conversion and acceptance of the gift of salvation through Jesus Christ was not a one-time event.  Salvation is a process and he continues to strive in his journey of faith that he might ultimately obtain salvation through Jesus Christ at the end of his life's journey.  Paul expresses the same teaching about salvation being a process in 1 Corinthians 1:18 when he says he is on the "road to salvation" and he is "being saved."

Paul's point is that salvation is a process with many points of justification along each individual's faith journey to the gates of heaven and eternal union with the Most Holy Trinity. Scripture supports the past, present, and future dimensions of salvation and its four aspects of justification, sanctification, redemption, and forgiveness (see the document: The four different aspects of salvation). Also see CCC# 588, 1256-57, 1277, 1739-42, 1889.

St. Paul recognizes that everything he valued before his conversion is worthless in comparison with the grace he has been given in the knowledge of Christ.  The Church teaches: "...once a person experiences the riches of Christ the Lord, he looks down on everything else: property, wealth and honors he views as filth.  For there is nothing that can compare with that supreme treasure, nothing that can be placed beside it" (St. Pius V Catechism, 4.11.15).  Paul is confident if he remains faithful in pursuing his goal by traveling the path God has prepared for Him through the redeeming work of Christ Jesus that "the prize of God's upward calling" that is Heaven will one day be his reward.

John 8:1-11: The Case of the Woman Accused of Adultery
1 Jesus went to the Mt. of Olives.  2 But early in the morning he arrived again in the Temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them.  3 Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle.  4 They said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery.  5 Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.  So what do you say?'  6 They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him.  Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.  7 But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her."  8 Again he bent down and wrote on the ground.  9 And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.  So he was left alone with the woman before him.  10 Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they?  Has no one condemned you?"  11 She replied, "No one, sir." Then Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you.  Go, and from now on do not sin anymore." 

This incident takes place about six months before Jesus' last journey to Jerusalem.  The season of the year is the annual pilgrim Feast of Tabernacles (also called Shelters or Booths) in the early fall (Jn 7:2; Lev 23:33-43; Num 29:12-38; Dt 16:16).  The Mt. of Olives was to the east of the city gate on the side of the city was the nearest entrance to the Temple Mount.  Jesus often stayed the night on the Mt. of Olives or the village of Bethany on the southeast side of the mount when visiting the holy city (Mt 21:14; Mk 11:11; Lk 21:37). 

Jesus was on His way to the Temple to take part in the morning liturgical services and to teach the people when He met a group of scribes and Pharisees who wanted to entrap Him so they could have an excuse to arrest Him.  The scribes were the authoritative teachers of the Law to whom rulings and legal interpretations are attributed.  They are often identified as members of the Sanhedrin, the great assembly and ruling body of the covenant people.  Today, we would probably designate them as the theologians.  St. Luke calls the "lawyers" in the literal Greek text (Lk 11:45-46).  Most of the scribes were Pharisees and this is why they are often united in opposing Jesus. 

This story presents a delicate balance between justice and mercy and between forgiveness and accountability for sin.  The Pharisees brought a woman accused of adultery to Jesus to trap Him and thereby to discredit Him as a false Messiah. If Jesus did not condemn this woman to death under Mosaic Law, the Pharisees will condemn Jesus to the people as a false Messiah who does not support the Law.  He had accused them of not keeping the Law (John 7:19), and now they will show that He does not keep the Law.  However, if He condemns her to death they can report Him into the Roman authorities as a traitor to Rome because He fostered rebellion by taking Roman powers unto Himself.  Only Rome had the power over life and death in Roman provinces (Jn 18:31). Treason against Rome was a capital crime punishable by crucifixion.  The Pharisees had also set traps for Jesus in Matthew 19:3 on the question of divorce and in Mark 12:13-17 on the question of taxes paid to Rome.

4 They said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery.  5 Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.  So what do you say?'  6a They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him.
In Leviticus 20:10, Deuteronomy 22:13-21 and 22-29, the punishment for adultery was death for both the man and woman caught in the act of adultery.  However, the punishment of stoning is mentioned specifically only in the case of a betrothed girl who is caught sleeping with another man or for a bride who is found by her husband not to be a virgin (Dt 22:13-21).  Ezekiel 16:38-40 does provide evidence that stoning was the form of death penalty for all types of adultery by the 6th century BC.  But some scholars have suggested that this is a case of a betrothed girl or even more likely that of a bride being accused since stoning is the penalty in both these cases, and in the case of a bride in which no other man would brought forward to be accused with her.

The question is, if as they say she was caught "in the very act of committing adultery", then where is the man who shares her guilt and/or where are the witnesses including the husband?  According to the Law, no one could be condemned to death without the testimony of 2-3 witnesses (see Dt 17:2-7).  If this was the case of a bride being accused by her husband when there was no proof of her virginity, she could be condemned on his testimony alone. The question is, of course, were these men so without conscience that they had set up a young girl to be killed simply to trap Jesus?

6b Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.  7 But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her."
No one knows what Jesus was writing.  Some scholars have suggested that He was writing the sins of those who accused the woman and others that He was writing out the Mosaic Law or perhaps relevant Scripture to condemn the accusers like Exodus 23:7.  Or perhaps He was writing a Scripture passage to comfort the distraught woman.  In that case Jeremiah 17:13-18 is a likely passage that He may have written.  It offers comfort and links this incident to writing on the earth and to the declaration of living water the day before: ...all who abandon you will be put to shame, those who turn from you will be registered in the underworld [or more literally, "written on the earth"], since they have abandoned Yahweh, the fountain of living water (Jer 17:13). 

But there may be a reason why St. John doesn't tell us what it is that Jesus wrote in the dirt.  John 9:13-16 suggests that this day is the Jewish Sabbath.  Writing was forbidden on the Sabbath unless the writing did not leave a lasting mark [Mishnah Shabbat 12:5].  Writing with fruit juice or in sand or dirt was permitted.  We do not know if He was writing Scripture verses or the sins of the accusers, but whatever He wrote His actions show that He did keep the Law perfectly, even according to the Oral Law that was later recorded in the Jewish Mishnah tractates of the Talmud.  Not only was His writing not permanent but the record of what He wrote was also not permanent.  Jesus did, however, deftly remove Himself from the Pharisees' trap while placing the accusers in a trap of His own.

He sprung the trap on the Pharisee accusers with His statement "Let the one among you who is guiltless [without sin] be the first to throw a stone at her" (8:7).  At first they would have been overjoyed!  "He fell into our trap! Now we'll report Him to the Romans and they will get rid of Him for us!"  But then the thought must have occurred to them that under the Law only the witnesses against her could cast the first stones, and, if this was the Sabbath it would be a Sabbath violation.  According to the Law two or three witnesses against the accused must agree on the guilt and provide evidence in their testimony (Dt 17:6; 19:15).  Only those who bore witness in agreement against the accused could cast the first stone (Dt 17:7; Mishnah: Sanhedrin 6:4).  This article of the Law of the Sinai Covenant explains Jesus' challenge to the crowd to bring forward those witnesses against her to cast the first stones.  Perhaps it is not so much a case of none of them being guilty of sin as none of them being able to truthfully, without sin, offer themselves as witnesses against her because none of them had actually seen her commit an act of adultery nor could they produce the husband.  If that was the case, there was no one present who was qualified to cast the first stone.  The punishment for offering false testimony was excommunication or, in a death penalty case, the punishment for giving false testimony was death for the false witness/witnesses (Num 15:30; Dt 19:16-21).

9 And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.  So he was left alone with the woman before him.
Jesus' statement that only those without sin could stone the woman was Jesus' trap.  The Pharisees believed that they were without sin (see Phil 3:6)...but did Jesus believe they were without sin (see Matthew 12:34; 15:7-9)?  No, Jesus has condemned them for sins against the people and against God and will call down a greater condemnation against them on His last day of teaching in Jerusalem before the Feast of Passover in Matthew 23:13-32 and Luke 11:39-52

The oldest and wisest Pharisees are the first to understand the trap.  They would have reasoned: "If we stone her anyway, despite the fact that there are no honest witnesses, the Romans will ask why we took her death sentence upon ourselves and we will say "Jesus told us to stone her." But He will say He told those honest witnesses who are without sin to do the stoning and that doesn't mean us because we know He has chastised us for our sins in the past; everyone knows this!   So it could be said that we did it on our own authority!"  Jesus reset the trap.  He neither authorizes the stoning nor contradicts the Law.  There is no way for them to recover from Jesus' trap except to walk away as sinners discredited in the eyes of the people! 

10 Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they?  Has no one condemned you?"  11 She replied, "No one, sir." Then Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you.  Go, and from now on do not sin anymore."
Jesus seems to express surprise that the accusers had gone; however, knowing all things, He was certainly not surprised.  Jesus' gentle sarcasm is an ironic contrast to the desperate situation of the woman a few minutes earlier when it must have seemed to her that her life was about to end.

This incident with the woman accused of adultery reminds us of an Old Testament story in which a righteous woman was falsely accused of adultery in the Book of Daniel chapter 13.  When Susanna is condemned to death and is being led away, a young Daniel, filled with the Holy Spirit, cries out "Are you so stupid, children of Israel, as to condemn a daughter of Israel unheard, and without troubling to find out the truth?" (Dan 13:48).  Unlike Susanna, this woman brought before Jesus does not seem to be entirely innocent because Jesus commands her to "go away and sin no more." 

The Church demands that justice be tempered with mercy.  Mercy does not mean that the sin is completely forgiven without consequence or accountability but that the circumstances that led to sin or the degree of contrition can promote the granting of mercy.  In this case the woman, who may have been purposely entrapped, has lost her family and her husband and life will be extremely difficult, yet her life is spared.  St. Augustine writes: "The two of them were left on their own, the wretched woman and Mercy ... gently he asks her, 'Has no one condemned you?'  She replies, 'No one, Lord.'  And he says, 'Neither do I condemn you; I who perhaps you feared would punish you, because in me you have found no sin.'  Lord, can it be that you favor sinners?  Assuredly not.  See what follows: 'Go and sin no more.'  Therefore, the Lord also condemned sin, but not the woman" (St. Augustine, In Ioann. Evang., 33, 5-6)Also see CCC# 1472-73.

Jesus did not judge the woman because His purpose was to elude the trap of the Pharisees and to show the crowd the extent of their sins.  Jesus also stated His mission was not to come to judge the world at this time but to save it (Jn 12:47; also 8:16).  He condemns the sin, but He has given the woman the chance take the path to salvation by repenting her sin, just as He offers us all the same forgiveness and mercy.  His mercy does not negate her accountability for sin; she still has to live with the consequences and suffering associated with her actions.  His judgment will come later at the end of her life, and by that time she has had the opportunity to atone for her sin through His death and Resurrection (see CCC#1441-3; 1846).

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2016

Catechism references:
Isaiah 43:19 (CCC 711)
Philippians 3:8-11 (CCC 428); 3:8 (CCC 133); 3:10-11 (CCC 989, 1006); 3:10 (CCC 648)
John 8:2 (CCC 583)