Sunday Scripture: The journey to what lies ahead
By Father Timothy Schehr
Fifth Sunday of Lent: Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11
This Sunday’s Gospel should be very familiar. The scribes and Pharisees bring a sinful woman before the Lord for a verdict. But rather than condemning her for her sin, Jesus sets her on a new path. She probably imagined this was her last day on earth. Instead it becomes a day to celebrate a new life.
The background for this reading is the feast of Tabernacles. At night during that feast Jerusalem was filled with lights. But Jesus would have His disciples see by an inner light that makes visible the way to eternal life. The healing of the blind man in John 9 and the raising of Lazarus in John 11 will contribute to this theme of inner light. So too does this scene with the sinful woman.
Jesus stands in a world darkened by sin. The authorities tried without success to have Jesus arrested. It seems now they have arranged another scheme to undo Jesus. The whole scene is a trap. They probably counted on Jesus forgiving the woman and thus going against the Law of Moses. This will give them legal leverage against him. They try to mask their dark intentions by addressing Jesus as Teacher, thus suggesting they are inclined to accept His judgment on the case.
Jesus will not be caught in their trap. He famously stoops down and begins tracing on the ground. Is He subtly letting them know He will not play their game? Or is He actually writing something in the dirt? If He is writing, He may be revealing the details of this plot to trap Him. What is clear is that Jesus eventually stands to full height again and challenges them to look inside their own hearts. He invites the innocent among them to be the first to cast a stone at the woman. Of course none of them are innocent because they were all guilty of having some role in this plot to trap Jesus. One by one they drift away. Elders first; they probably had a leading role in the plot against Jesus.
In the end, the woman stands alone before Jesus. Readers of this Gospel know only too well that Jesus came into this world because the Father loved it so and wanted humanity to believe in the Son and thus gain eternal life. Thus is the invitation Jesus now extends to the woman. He does not condemn her but tells her to sin no more. She now sets out on a journey that will bring her closer and closer to salvation.
The prophet Isaiah has a new journey to celebrate too. The first reading belongs to his famous oracle of the “something new” God is going to do for the people of Israel. For centuries by Isaiah’s time, the people had remembered the great day of Passover when God opened up “a way in the sea” to lead them beyond the reach of Pharaoh’s powerful forces. But Isaiah has something even more amazing to announce. This time God will do the reverse. God will open up a watered way in the arid desert. Along its course, God will lead the people out of captivity in Babylon back to the Promised Land.
In the second reading, Paul talks about his own journey to God. He is so intent on reaching his goal that he counts all earthly goods as, in his words, “so much rubbish.” He does not count on any righteousness of his own no matter how carefully he has kept the law. Paul is counting on the righteousness of Christ Jesus. Because of his faith in Jesus, Paul is ready to accept any hardship so long as he may attain the resurrection from the dead. He does not dwell on what lies behind but strains forward to what lies ahead. The woman Jesus forgave surely did the same.
Father Schehr is a faculty member at the Athenaeum of Ohio.