By FATHER DONALD DILGER
Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year C
First Reading: Isaiah 43:16-21; Response: Psalm 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6; Second Reading: Philippians 3:8-14; Gospel: John 8:1-11
Today, we return for the fifth time in Year C to the oracles of Isaiah as our first reading. It is part of Isaiah known as The Book of Consolation. Though the name of the prophet to whom these oracles are attributed is unknown, tradition made them the second part of the Book of Isaiah. Thus, he is called Second Isaiah. The consolation tone is due to the fact that the Lord sent him to the Israelite exiles in Babylon to proclaim the end of their exile. The time is about 540 B.C. The exile came about in waves from 598 to 582 B.C. when the Neo-Babylonian Empire conquered Judea. Moving people away from their homelands after a conquest was standard procedure. That empire was now in decline. Persia was on the rise. Under King Cyrus the Great Babylonian power ended. It was Cyrus’ policy to let captive peoples return to their homelands and rebuild temples to their gods. Israel did not have gods, just the real God, the Lord. Cyrus hoped to gain the blessings of foreign gods by his enlightened policy. Israel did not have gods, just the real God, the Lord.
Cyrus’ decree, or the versions of it available biblically, allowing the Israelites to return to Judea and rebuild Jerusalem is found in Ezra 1:2-4; 6:35; 2 Chronicles 36:23. Our prophet interprets the return from Babylon/Persia as a new Exodus like the Exodus from Egypt to the Land of Promise seven centuries earlier. Part of his interpretation is seen in today’s first reading. He must be one of the great cheerleaders of history. His metaphors soar in language far too enthusiastic compared to reality on the ground. According to Second Isaiah, the Lord opens a way through the sea as he did when the ancient Israelites crossed the Sea of Reeds dry shod to escape from the Pharaoh. No army was pursuing the Israelites returning to Judea in 538 B.C. They went with the blessing of King Cyrus the Great. In poetic language, the prophet envisions a highway through the desert with rivers in the wilderness “for my people to drink.” Why would God do all this for his chosen people? The prophet answers, “That they might announce my praise.” God sounds like an American politician, but that is only because human language is limited in expressing divine intentions.
Psalm 126 is an unusually appropriate choice to respond to the first reading. It explicitly recalls when “the Lord brought back the captives (exiles) of Zion (Jerusalem).” The returnees were delirious with joy — the very opposite of their sadness in exile, which we see in Psalm 137, “How can we sing the Lord’s songs in a foreign land?” The people’s response summarizes today’s psalm, “The Lord has done great things for us. We are filled with joy.” The final verse of the psalm is the origin of a rousing Christian hymn, “Bringing in the Sheaves.” (Lyrics: Knowles Shaw, 1874, Music: George Minor, 1880) To be noted: neither Psalm 126 nor the first reading display any connection with today’s gospel.
The second reading, St. Paul to the Philippians, compares Paul’s former way of life with his life after conversion. “I consider everything (his past) as loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” But this was not yet enough for Paul’s wired personality. He adds, “For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things, and I consider them as so much rubbish that I may gain Christ.” Earthy language is very male, and Paul is no exception. He did not write “rubbish. He wrote “dung,” (Greek: kopria), a more-polite word subbing for a more familiar four-letter word. Paul has interesting words for reflection by Christians proclaiming they have been saved. “It is not that I have already taken hold of it, or already attained maturity, but I continue my pursuit that I may possess it.” Even St. Paul was still working out the salvation God offers through Jesus Christ. On this Sunday, the Lectionary moves us away from Luke and into the Gospel of John. It is a story of total forgiveness which fits better into Luke’s theology. A woman has just been caught in the act of adultery. It takes two for that, but there is no mention of a man. Jesus’ critics set a trap. They bring this woman forward and stand her in the center of a crowd. So much for sensitivity! According to the Torah, the penalty for adultery is death by stoning, (like Islam’s Sharia law). See Leviticus 20:10; Deut. 22:21-22; Ezekiel 16:38-40; Daniel 13. Would Jesus uphold the laws of Moses? Or would he pronounce forgiveness of a sinner as he was known to have done earlier in his career, and for which his critics accused him of the sin of blasphemy? See Mark 2:5-10. “So what do you say,” they asked? Jesus’ reply, “He bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.” What did he write? St. Jerome, (died in 420 A.D.), thought Jesus was writing the sins of the accusers. Others thought Jesus was fulfilling Jeremiah 17:13, “Those who turn away from you shall be written on the ground . . .?” Or was Jesus so embarrassed that he was gaining time by playing some ancient form of Tic-tac-toe?
The accusers persist. Jesus answers, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” He bent over again and continued to write. In a Bible class in a juvenile detention center in California, a “resident” gave his opinion, “He bent over in case some jerk started throwing rocks.” Back to our story. The accusers left in silence one by one, “beginning with the elders.” That should remind readers and hearers of the story in Daniel 13. Chaste and married Susanna was taking a bath in her private garden. Two lusty elders were spying on her and propositioned her. If she did not yield to their lust, they would start yelling that she had tried to seduce them. She refused their seduction and cried out as loud as she could. They screamed out their accusations as they had warned her. Through examining their accusations separately, Daniel in lawyerly fashion proved they were lying. Their punishment for false accusation: the penalty that would have been inflicted on Susanna, death by stoning. Back to our story: Jesus and the woman were now alone? Jesus asks, “Has no one condemned you?” Her answer, “No one, Lord.” Jesus: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” A challenge: can we forgive like Jesus? To forgive is indeed divine.