Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"Go, and... do not sin anymore": The readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

"Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

These are the words Jesus speaks to the woman caught in adultery in this Sunday's Gospel.

In his commentary on last Sunday's readings, John highlighted the theme of the "new creation". A similar idea is expressed this week.

Here we are preparing for the "Pasch", that is, "Passover". Just as God set Israel free from bondage in Egypt through the Passover of the Old Testament, in the New Covenant Christ comes to bring about true liberation through his passion, death and resurrection: he delivers us from slavery to sin and sets us free by his grace. 

Let us treat each of these readings carefully and see how they develop this theme.

First Reading: Isaiah 43:16-21
Thus says the LORD,
who opens a way in the sea
and a path in the mighty waters,
who leads out chariots and horsemen,
a powerful army,
till they lie prostrate together, never to rise,
snuffed out and quenched like a wick.
Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
see, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
In the desert I make a way,
in the wasteland, rivers.
Wild beasts honor me,
jackals and ostriches,
for I put water in the desert
and rivers in the wasteland
for my chosen people to drink,
the people whom I formed for myself,
that they might announce my praise.
Isaiah's prophecy clearly evokes the language of the Exodus. God opes a "way". The term used in the Greek Old Testament here for "way" is hodos, where we get "exodus" ("ex-hodus"), which literally means, "a way out". God led Israel out of Egypt--out of their slavery--and he did this by leading them through the waters of the Red Sea.
Here we have a clear reference to that miraculous event. We read that God "leads out chariots and horsemen, a powerful army, till they lie prostrate together, never to rise". This is clearly an allusion to the defeat of Pharaoh's army in the waters of the Red Sea (cf. Exod. 15:4).

But note that Isaiah is not simply reminding us of what God has done in the past. Isaiah is citing God's saving actions in the past as prologue; God's greatest saving actions are yet to come: "Remember not the events of the past... see, I am doing something new!"

What is this "new thing" the Lord will do?

Well, note that it involves bringing forth waters in the desert; God will give his people water to drink in the wilderness.

Here we are reminded of a second image from the Exodus account: God's provision of miraculous water from a rock. 

That God describes his people as his "chosen people" which he has "formed" is also notable. The word here in Hebrew for "formed" (yatsar) is the same term used in Genesis 2 where we read that God "formed" man from the dust of the ground (Gen. 2:7-8). In his "chosen people" God is planning on bringing about a "new creation" (as John highlighted last week). 

This fits well with the Lord's announcement that he is about to "do" a "new thing". In the Hebrew, the word here ('asah) can be translated either "do" or "make". It would seem best to read the line in terms of "new creation" imagery. Scholars see this passage as the background for God's declaration in Revelation: "Behold, I make all things new" (Rev. 21:5)

Reading this passage in light of the New Testament, the early Church fathers drew sacramental connections from this passage. After all, St. Paul expressly explains that the events of the parting of the Red Sea, the giving of the manna (supernatural food) and the giving of water from the rock (supernatural drink) were "types" of what would come in Christ.
"I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ... Now these things are warnings [typos="types"] for us..." (1 Cor 10:1-4, 6). 
By describing Israel's passing through the water as "baptism", Paul makes it clear that he sees "sacramental" imagery in the Old Testament. As Israel was delivered through water and the cloud [=the Holy Spirit], Christians are delivered through baptism. 

It is no coincidence then that Paul goes on to speak of the Eucharist in the following verses (cf. 1 Cor. 10:14-22). In context, Paul sees the bread from heaven and the miraculous water from the rock, the "supernatural food" and "supernatural drink", as prefiguring the the Eucharistic food and drink of the New Covenant. 

St. Cyprian, writing on this passage, therefore read the passage as pointing forward to rebirth in the sacraments:
"But as often as water is named alone in the holy Scriptures, baptism is referred to, as we see intimated in Isaiah: '...Behold, I will do a new thing..." There God foretold by the prophet that among the nations in places that previously had been dry, rivers should afterwards flow plenteously and should provide water for the elected people of God by the generation of baptism... For by baptism the Holy Spirit is received, and thus by those who are baptized and have attained to the Holy Spirit is attained the drinking of the Lord's cup." (Letter 62.8; cited from Mark W. Elliot, ed., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture: Isaiah 40-66 [Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007], 53-54).
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6
R. (3) The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy. 
1. When the LORD brought back the captives of Zion,
we were like men dreaming.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
and our tongue with rejoicing. R.  
2. Then they said among the nations,
“The LORD has done great things for them.”
The LORD has done great things for us;
we are glad indeed. R.  
3. Restore our fortunes, O LORD,
like the torrents in the southern desert.
Those that sow in tears
shall reap rejoicing. R. 
4. Although they go forth weeping,carrying the seed to be sown,
They shall come back rejoicing,
carrying their sheaves. R. 
The Responsorial Psalm picks up on the theme of a New Exodus. God is going to deliver his people from captivity and bring them to Zion. Note again the language of water in the wilderness ("like torrents in the southern desert"). 

The language of the people returning, "carrying their sheaves", involves harvest imagery (First Fruits/Pentecost?). Such imagery is used in Isaiah to describe the return of the people of Israel to Zion:
And they shall bring all your brethren from all the nations as an offering to the Lord, upon horses, and in chariots, and in litters, and upon mules, and upon dromedaries, to my holy mountain Jerusalem, says the Lord, just as the Israelites bring their cereal offering in a clean vessel to the house of the Lord. (Isa 66:20)
Especially important here is recognizing the centrality of Zion. Zion, of course, is inextricably linked to the temple (cf. the parallelism in Jer. 50:28). David Aune writes: “Jerusalem and the Temple were so closely associated that the mention of one often implicitly entails the other and the sanctity of the former was thought an extension of the latter.”* 

Those celebrating the deliverance of the messianic age, therefore, are thus depicted here as gathered together at the temple, a vision found in the prophetic literature (cf. Isa. 2:2-3; Mic 4:1-2). It is worth mentioning that Psalm 126 is one of the fifteen Ascent Psalms. In the Mishnah it is said that these were sung while walking up ("ascending") the fifteen steps of the temple (m. Suk. 5.4).**

Again, read in light of the New Testament, we see how this is ultimately fulfilled in Christ. Christ's body is depicted as the new temple (cf., e.g., John 2:19-21; Mark 14:58). In Christ--and in his mystical body, the Church--the redeemed are gathered, having been delivered from captivity to sin. 

Second Reading: Philippians 3:8-14
Brothers and sisters:
I consider everything as a loss
because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.
For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things
and I consider them so much rubbish,
that I may gain Christ and be found in him,
not having any righteousness of my own based on the law
but that which comes through faith in Christ,
the righteousness from God,
depending on faith to know him and the power of his resurrection
and the sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death,
if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. 
It is not that I have already taken hold of it
or have already attained perfect maturity,
but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it,
since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus.
Brothers and sisters, I for my part
do not consider myself to have taken possession.
Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind
but straining forward to what lies ahead,
I continue my pursuit toward the goal,
the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.
Above we looked at how the Lord speaks in Isaiah of his "chosen people". Here Paul uses similar language: "I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus." Christ has chosen Paul.

Yet Paul is here using himself as a model for all believers. He teaches us that salvation is found in the "supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord". In the preceding verses (cf. Phil. 3:4-6), Paul talks about his blameless standing in Judaism. Yet this means nothing to him anymore. Everything is to be set aside to gain the one prize--"that I may gain Christ". Everything else is so much "rubbish" (skybala), a term that can mean "dung" or "excrement". 

For Paul encountering Christ is the supreme good. Salvation is not simply about some ecstatic, heavenly state--it is relational. Our former Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, thus described salvation in terms of the need "to know God and establish a living relationship with him in an authentic communion of love that can fill our lives and our interpersonal social relations with the same love" (Easter Homily, 2008).

Notice, however, that Paul does not simply understand salvation in terms of a past tense reality. Salvation in the New Testament is described as a past, present, and future reality. 
  • Christ has "saved us (esōsen)” (Titus 3:5; cf. e.g. also Rom 8:24)--past tense. 
  • Salvation is also an ongoing reality--Paul speaks of “us who are being saved (sōzomenois)” (1 Cor 1:18; cf. Acts 2:47: “the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved [sōzomenous]”). 
  • Moreover, the New Testament describes salvation as a future reality; believers “will be saved (sōthēsetai)” (John 10:7; Rom 10:13; 1 Cor 3:15; 1 Tim 2:15; Acts 15:11).

I cannot offer a long reflection here on Catholic soteriology. Suffice it to say, salvation is ultimately about sonship. Since sons "mature", salvation is not simply a momentary event. Paul thus explains: "It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it". 

Contrary to my Protestant friends who might insist on "eternal security" (i.e., "once-saved-always-saved"), such a teaching is not consistent with Scripture. This is especially clear in the Gospel of John where Jesus warns that some believers who have been united to him (as branches to the true vine) will be cut off and thrown into the fire (cf. John 15:1-6), an image of eternal damnation. In sum, those who have been saved may choose to renounce their salvation--and God will respect their freedom to do so (though he certainly knows who will endure and who will not!)

To bring our reflections on this reading to an end then, let's return to Paul's essential point: Christ is the prize. All else--especially including sin!--must be renounced for sake of him! 

GOSPEL: John 8:1-11
Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area,
and all the people started coming to him,
and he sat down and taught them.
Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman
who had been caught in adultery
and made her stand in the middle.
They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught
in the very act of committing adultery.
Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.
So what do you say?”
They said this to test him,
so that they could have some charge to bring against him.
Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.
But when they continued asking him,
he straightened up and said to them,
“Let the one among you who is without sin
be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Again he bent down and wrote on the ground.
And in response, they went away one by one,
beginning with the elders.
So he was left alone with the woman before him.
Then Jesus straightened up and said to her,
“Woman, where are they?
Has no one condemned you?”
She replied, “No one, sir.”
Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.
Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
There is a whole debate surrounding the question of whether or not this story represents a later addition to the Gospel of John. I'll deal with that issue in a separate post. Let's go straightaway to the story itself.   

The episode begins with Jesus at the Mount of Olives. He apparently spent the night there (Jesus seems to go from the Mount of Olives to the temple "early in the morning"). What was he doing there? Given the evidence elsewhere, it seems possible Jesus spent the night there in prayer (John 18:1-2; Matt. 26:36). If this is the case we might here have a lesson in the relationship of prayer and mercy. 

Of course, the heart of the story begins here: the Pharisees bring a woman who had just been caught in the act of adultery to Jesus and ask him what should be done with her. (Commentators have long noted that the man somehow mysteriously has escaped judgment). 

John explains the context: the Jewish leaders are intent on "trapping" Jesus. Indeed, once you understand the issues involved you can see just how devious their plan is. It really appears that they have caught Jesus in a true "catch-22" scenario:
  1. If Jesus says not to stone her he will be accused of not keeping the law, which requires adulterers to be punished with death (cf. Lev. 20:10; Deut. 22:22). Since Jesus had just accused the Pharisees of not keeping the Law themselves (cf. John 7:19), to not carry out the Law here would discredit him--i.e., he would be exposed as a hypocrite! 
  2. Yet if Jesus commands the woman to be stoned, he will be guilty of treason and executed, for only the Romans could carry out an execution (cf. John 18:31).
In this passage we see the absolute brilliance of Jesus. On the spot he takes what appears to be an iron-clad trap and turns it back on those who set it in motion. After writing on the ground (and we have no idea what he wrote so I won't speculate!), he states, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

With these words Jesus turns the tables and places his opponents in the same precarious position they had intended for him: 
  1. If they stone her they will be guilty of treason. They can’t say Jesus authorized them to do so because he condemns them as sinners! 
  2. If they don’t stone her they admit their guilt (i.e., they not “without sin”). Implicitly, they affirm Jesus' words about them! 
Jesus' shrewdness is acknowledged first by the elders, who walk away before anyone else. (I imagine some of the more zealous younger Pharisees saying, "Why are leaving?... Ohhhhhh! Skybala!")

Jesus tells the woman that he does not condemn her either, instructing her, "Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

This is the lesson we should reflect on this Lent. In Christ we have been forgiven and yet the woman caught in adultery is an appropriate image for all of us who are unfaithful to Christ. Yet Christ does not condemn us. He calls us on to freedom in him--the freedom gained by his Passion and Resurrection.

Yet--as Paul mentions--we have not yet fully attained the prize. We might fall away. Jesus' words therefore are comforting ("Neither do I condemn you") but also a contain a warning: "sin no more".

Jesus calls sinners--but he expects us to repent! Jesus loves us just the way we are, but he loves us too much to let us stay that way!

* David Aune, “Restoration in Jewish Apocalyptic Literature,” in Restoration: Old Testament, Jewish, and Christian Perspectives (J. H. Scott, ed.; Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism. Leiden. Brill, 2001), 163.
**For further discussion see David Mitchell, The Message of the Psalter: An Eschatological Programme in the Book of Psalms. (Journal for the Study of the Old Testament Supplement 252; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1997), 109-10.

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