Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year C 2019
The God we worship is full of surprises. We can’t put Him in a box. He doesn’t fit well in any of our categories. No wonder in Exodus 3 He revealed Himself as “I am who I am”, i.e.., “I am not limited to your categories of thinking. This is as interesting as it is provocative. We can’t ignore God’s surprises. They are in our faces. They captivate our attention. They leave us in awe of His greatness. They are provocative, they upset our way thinking and our core beliefs.
They upset the Scribes and the Pharisees as they upset in our era atheists and those who believe in empirical knowledge alone. The point here is God is always near to us, we can sense Him, hear Him, know Him but at the same time He transcends our knowing. This isn’t something new. It was one of the difficulties experienced by the Pre-Socratic Philosophers. They struggled with the One, God who is Being – actuality, but also becoming, manifesting Himself in creation.
Thomas Merton had the foregoing in mind when He said, “God is the God of surprises”. In his homily on the 13th of October 2014, Pope Francis decried the unfortunate reality of the Scribes and the Pharisees not understanding and accepting the surprises of God. “Why did they not understand? First of all, because they were closed. They were closed in their system… They had perfectly organized the law, a masterpiece. Everything was organized. And they were safe there.”
But the danger of this safety is that it becomes toxic. It breeds division; “the perfect us vs the sinful them” – a kind of hermeneutic of rupture. It hinders one from entering the Kingdom of God. Christ punctured this “safety balloon” of theirs by reaching out to sinners, when they had distanced themselves from sinners; by welcoming sinners, when they had turned sinners away; by loving and befriending sinners, when they had condemned and made enemies of sinners.
In a way, Christ was a surprise. He upset their way of life. As a result, they hated His guts. Thus, the Scribes and the Pharisees set out as we heard in the Gospel Reading to test Him, to find something they can use against Him. They brought a woman caught in the very act of adultery. Note, the sin of adultery was the worst sin one could commit at that time. It is very much like the sin of child abuse today. In a way, it was the sin of idolatry, the worship of another god.
So, there were many implications in their test. If Jesus had ordered the stoning of the woman, they would have accused Him of being a sexist (protecting the man), since the law of Moses commanded that both parties in the act of adultery must be put to death. Secondly, He would have been usurping the power of the Romans. If he had set the woman free, they would have accused Him of condoning the sin of adultery, which discredits Him as the Son of God.
The point here isn’t so much the implications of the test, but the consequences of closed minds. It is about the extent to which closed minds can poison and destroy society. Or put it another way, it is about the extent it can demonise and scapegoat God’s surprises in the name of conserving a system of laws for the conservatives or in the name of protecting one’s unlimited freedom for the liberals. Unfortunately, both camps forget that we are a people on a journey.
A journey whose paths and destinies aren’t determined by us, but by God. Which means we will always discover new things, things which we did not know, things that will surprise us, things that will unsettle us. This is what the First Reading from Isaiah 43:16-21 is saying, “No need to recall the past, no need to think about what was done before. See, I am doing a new deed, even now it comes to light; can you not see it?” No doubt, we can be blinded by the past.
So, it is not only our minds that are closed, but our eyes are also blind. This is a double tragedy, one that St. Paul identified and walked away from. In the Second Reading he said, “I am no longer trying for perfection by my own efforts, the perfection that comes from the Law, but I want only the perfection that comes through faith in Christ and is from God and based on faith”. Notice the openness of Paul. He freely let go of his knowing and was opened to God’s surprises.
Now, the whole corpus of Pauline Theology speaks of the greatest of God’s surprises, which is the sending of His Son into the world. St John for his part reveals why God had to send His Son, “Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world”, he said, “but in order that the world might be saved through Him” (John 3:17). This explains why Christ didn’t condemn the woman caught in adultery, rather He rescued her and set her on her journey to God.
“Go away, and don’t sin any more” reveals how God deals with sin and the sinner. His priority is always the sinner, to rescue the sinner from the sin. For we easily overcome sin when we experience God’s love. G. K. Chesterton puts it this way, “When a man knocks at a brothel, it is God’s love he is seeking”. Love him and you will not see him there anymore. Perhaps, the Scribes and the Pharisees walked away when the realised they had not loved the woman.
Similarly, St. Therese of Lisieux said, “I know that true charity consists in bearing all our neighbours’ defects – not being surprised at their weaknesses but edified at their smallest virtues”. In the same vein, we are invited by Christ’s decision, not to condemn the woman caught in adultery, to encounter the other; to enter his or her world and journey with him or her into the experience of God’s love, which is the truth that empowers us not to sin any more.
Fr. Francis Afu