Scripture notes – 5th Sunday of Lent, C – 3rd April 2022

There is no obvious connection between today’s readings but as we approach the end of Lent, they provide various reflections on themes of Holy Week. Some may come to the end of Lent feeling satisfied with what they have been doing, others may like me realise how little of the plans were accomplished. For both – it is not really about some achievement of our own, but a time to reminder that it is God working in us, for us, and through us.

The readings are available online here.

Isaiah 43:16-21
What and how God worked in the past is the concern of this selection from the prophet ‘Second Isaiah’. Writing to the Jews exiled in Babylon, he evokes the Exodus from Egypt as he foresees a new rescue from oppression. 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’. Once again they have a desert to cross to reach their homeland, but rather than seeing that as an ordeal, it is presented almost like a pageant of triumph.

In our times, theology and sermons are not often presented in the form of poetry, but many of the old prophets wrote in a poetic style. To interpret them requires a holistic response in which images and expressions may have a deeper resonance than statements of fact or reasoning. In this excerpt, water and wild beasts suggest God’s protection and care in the crossing of the barren desert between Babylon and Israel. In his commentary, John L. MacKenzie, SJ, says of this: ‘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 inherit that tradition, and 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 to something new happening when God works in human life.

Psalm 125/126
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. It can for us be taken as a preview of the joys of Eastertide.

Philippians 8:8-14
Although St Paul wrote his letters in an ordinary style, at times his enthusiasm and sense of God working in him and in his converts becomes poetic. This selection is a strong emotional expression of Paul’s firm faith and full confidence in Christ. His 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 about being a perfect Jew, 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, with the popularity of various competitions in modern times, something we 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 found in some later ones and 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 Romans who ruled the country deciding all capital punishment and so he 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 what he writes, but 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 simply doodling, which might show contempt for their intentions and their treatment of the woman, but it also is 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 had now put them in the trap they tried set for him; the question of sin is no longer about one woman, but 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 just 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. We live in times where judgements and condemnations are in the daily news, and all over social media to the extent that sometimes blame is attached to refusing to condemn another or enact revenge. Jesus instead asks that each person consider themselves and what they are doing with their lives. To face the truth that ‘all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.’ (Romans 3:23)

Another message of these readings is that God forgives our sins but, on our part, we are asked to decide that we want to change in the future. As St Paul wrote, it is God who works in us, but we are to respond that that love and grace. It might in a current phrase, be called an ‘interactive’ relationship. God is always there for us, but we can ‘tune in’ or we can ignore or reject God’s offer.

When we do acknowledge that ‘tenderness and compassion’, we share in the joy as of a rescue from exile, and in ‘the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus’ our Lord.

Joan Griffith