Reflection on the Fifth Sunday of Lent
When I agreed to prepare this homily, I did so without looking at the readings. I was very happy when I saw that the Gospel story was one of my favorites. The world needs to hear this story today because there is much to forgive, and it isn’t easy.
In recent readings we have heard various approaches to sin and forgiveness: Jesus advises, “Remove the plank in your own eye before removing the splinter in the eye of another.” In other words, don’t judge other people’s intentions. “The Samaritan woman.” And “Welcome home, son: Let’s have a party,” the father tells his son who has just made a mess of his life.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus is interacting with a woman who is not innocent, and her accusers are not forgiving. She is surrounded by men accusing her of adultery. I imagine them pushing her down to the ground and shouting insults at her. She is alone — last I heard, it takes two people to commit adultery. So where is the other person? She is alone and terrified, about to be stoned to death.
Can you imagine what is going on in the head of that poor woman? She is surrounded by self-righteous men scolding and threatening her. Has she heard about Jesus or does she think he is just one more person to assist in the stoning. How did she end up in this situation? Was she a prostitute? Was she married and unfaithful to her husband or was her partner married and unfaithful to his wife or were they just two people who were attracted to each other? Maybe she had been manipulated into the situation, used by another, but not respected. I think of her as trembling, head bowed in shame, crying and so afraid.
Then there is Jesus, calm, taking in the situation, being challenged to see what he would do to this sinner. Would he follow the law or ignore it? His enemies are confident that they have trapped him this time. You can imagine the gleam in their eyes as they watch him. They are waiting, but Jesus ignores them and simply writes in the sand. Maybe he was writing words or maybe just doodling. They can’t trap him; he won’t respond to them in the way they hope he will. Finally, he says, “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.” One by one, they leave the scene.
Then she hears this very quiet voice say to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She looks around from her position down on the ground and is surprised to see that they are all gone except Jesus. Puzzled, she responds, “No one, sir.” “Neither do I condemn you. Go and from now on do not sin any more.”
Did he really say that? Did she hear him right? What a relief! Who is this kind, understanding person? Did she take his advice seriously? I would be surprised if she didn’t. Have you ever had an experience that changed you because someone else trusted you to change? It is a wonderful experience. Jesus empowered this woman to change. He accepted her just as she was without condemnation or even judgment. He helped heal her self-image by his respect of her as a person, not a sinner. What a difference that makes.
At the Community prayer service two weeks ago in her reflection on the Gospel, Kim Klein explained the meaning of “repent or perish.” Repent really means “metanoia,” a change of heart, living in a new way. Perish doesn’t mean to die, but rather to travel down the wrong path, resisting change and continuing to make bad choices. Jesus gave this woman a second chance. He freed her to act with integrity. He acted in the name of our God of second chances.
Forgiving frees both parties, the forgiver and the forgiven. The one who forgives can let go, stop fretting, eliminate those mental scenarios of I should have said this or done that or allowing the hurt to simmer on and on instead of laying down that burden, putting it away and restoring peace of mind. The one who is forgiven can see themselves differently, as loved in spite of what they have done and enabled to start anew. His or her burden is lifted also.
That is what Jesus did for this woman. He freed her to start over — metanoia. He didn’t say what she had been doing was acceptable, he told her to avoid it in the future. When we forgive, it doesn’t mean we have to condone wrongful behavior, nor should we. But we look at the person with love or at least respect and give that person permission to change.
Forgiveness of sin is to make whole, to restore the balance in a person’s life. Wholeness is what we need, it is what the world needs. When families don’t work together, or government leaders, or nations, or when we don’t work with nature, there is chaos. When everything and everyone works together in harmony, great things happen. Whatever we can do to restore that wholeness is good. Forgiveness is a part of that work. It restores harmony.
All you have to do is forgive, right? How does a mother forgive the police officer who knelt on her son’s neck until he suffocated to death? How does the abused spouse forgive the abuser who has made her life miserable for years? How do the people of Ukraine forgive President Putin for destroying their lives? How do Russian parents forgive him for exposing their sons to injury and death?
I don’t pretend to know the answers to those questions. Looking at what has shaped a person’s life may help understand the evil behavior, but I think it is only with prayer and God’s grace that it is possible to truly forgive. What I do know is that we need to keep working at it in small and large ways in order to help heal our fractured world.