As we come to the last Sunday before the events of the Passion, the readings offer reflection on the themes that dominate this season: God’s intervention to save us from the ‘exile’ that sinfulness has created.
‘Second Isaiah’, writing to the Jews exiled in Babylon, evokes the Exodus from Egypt as he foresees a new rescue from slavery. While the event was still to come, the Prophet’s confidence in God is shown by words that see it as taking place ‘right now’. He wrote as a poet, and imagery of water and wild beasts stand for God’s protection and care in the crossing of the barren desert between Babylon and Israel. In our times, theology and sermons are not presented in the form of poetry, but that was common in the Old Testament. In his commentary, John L. MacKenzie, SJ, says of this prophet’s words: ‘Whether the desert actually blossomed with roses or not would, in his mind, neither add to the wonder of the restoration nor detract from it. The saving acts of God were described in terms of Israelite tradition.’ We do inherit that tradition, we may see in such songs a ‘preview’ of God’s saving work in Jesus, something that cannot easily be described but imaginative language can suggest an opening up of our minds for something new.
This short psalm was sung in remembrance of the return from exile. It was likely used by pilgrims coming to Jerusalem for the great feasts. For us it comes as another preview of the joys of Eastertide.
This is an almost poetic expression of Paul’s firm faith and full confidence in Christ. This reliance on Jesus’ death and resurrection also points us towards the Easter Triduum. Just before this selection, Paul described how he had kept the provisions of the Law, and if anyone could brag, he could. But now he has an entirely different view, with total reliance on Christ, combined with humility about his own position. The image of a race with prizes for winners is a favourite of Paul, and one that both his listeners and we (with the popularity of various competitions in modern times) can relate to. Every participant hopes to win in a contest, but in the ‘race’ of Christian life, all can be winners.
Paul several times uses the paradox that Jesus has done all for us – here expressed as ‘captured’ us – but we also have ‘all’ to do in the working out of our salvation.
Joel 1:12-13 – An alternate Gospel Acclamation
‘Come back to me with all your heart, for I am all tenderness and compassion.’
John 8:1-11 (or Luke after 21:38)
This gem of a story has a mixed textual history, but recognized by the Church as scripture. It is not in the oldest manuscripts of John, although copied into some later ones. But it is in some manuscripts of Luke. It has a number of words that are not otherwise found in John, but are typical of Luke for whom the theme of forgiveness is so central. When in Luke’s gospel, it comes after 21:37, where both the Mount of Olives and teaching in the Temple have been mentioned. It would then be his last public moment before the passion begins with the Passover meal. We may never know who preserved this story, but clearly it speaks in the authentic voice of Christ.
The religious opponents offer Jesus a calculated test, hoping to trap him whatever he says. If he does not confirm the Law’s provisions, they will condemn him for that. If he does call for the woman to be stoned, he will be violating the rule reserving capital punishment to the Roman government and could be denounced to the authorities. Jesus does not say anything, but stoops and writes in the dust till they call on him again. We are not told anything about he writes, and that has caused much speculation. R. E. Brown says, if the actual words mattered, we can think that ‘the content of the writing would have been reported’. Jesus may be showing contempt for their intentions and their treatment of the woman, or it may be a way of giving them time to reflect.
Rowan Williams (in Writing in the Dust: After September 11) suggests that when Jesus does not reply, he creates a space for something not expected to happen. ‘He allows a moment, a longish moment, in which people are given time to see themselves differently precisely because he refuses to make the sense they want.’
There was a provision in the Law that those who witnessed the adultery should be the first to throw the stone, but Jesus gives them a new ‘first’, one that challenges all of them to examine their own consciences and only act if they can claim never to have sinned themselves. Now they also could see that Jesus has had now put them in the trap they tried set for him; the question of sin is no longer on one woman, but on everyone. Jesus bends over to write again, again there is time for them to see the matter differently.
When he looks up, only the woman is there. His question, ‘Have they all gone?’ may indicate the men should have stayed in repentance, or be a way of pointing out that the accusers have nothing to say now. The woman too could now have gotten away, free from her persecutors, but she remains in his presence. He releases her gently, but mercy does not deny the existence of wrong-doing, and he tells her ‘now sin no more’. She too has been given time to think of what she does in a different light.
An obvious lesson here calls for a time of reflection before rushing to condemn others we think are sinful. The second lesson might be: God forgives our sins but on our part, we are asked to decide that we want to change in the future. The old catechism called it ‘firm purpose of amendment.’