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Fifth Sunday Of Lent, Year C

By Father Donald Dilger
Father Donald Dilger

Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year C

Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6; Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11


The date for today’s first reading is approximately 540 B.C. The Israelites have been in captivity (exile) in Babylon (today’s Iraq) since early sixth century B.C. There were several waves of exiles taken to Babylon ranging from 598 to 582. The so-called Neo-Babylonian Empire was by this time in decline. Persia was the rising power. Cyrus the Great and his army were on the march. When they arrived at the gates of Babylon, the people, long tired of their rulers, opened the city gates. Now Babylon became part of the Persian Empire. An unknown prophet called Second Isaiah by scholars was on the scene as a keen observer. It was the policy of Cyrus for all exiled peoples to return to their homelands and rebuild the temples to their gods. Cyrus’ motivation was simple, that all these gods being honored again would also bless him. The return of Israel to the former Kingdom of Judah and its capital city Jerusalem was at hand.

Cyrus’ Decree of Return and the decree ordering the rebuilding of the Jerusalem temple are preserved in the Old Testament Book of Ezra 1:2-4 and 6:3-5. Second Isaiah’s interpretation of Cyrus’ action is that of a new Exodus, like the ancient Exodus from Egypt. Part of this prophet’s interpretation is expressed in the poem which constitutes today’s first reading. Second Isaiah is one of the great cheerleaders of history. His enthusiasm about the return soars in language far too exultant to fit the reality on the ground. The Lord opens a route to the sea through the mighty waters, a reminder of the ancient Israelites escaping through the Sea of Reeds. He recalls the Pharaoh’s army in pursuit of the fleeing Egyptians, although the Israelites who returned from Babylon had no army pursuing them. There would be a road through deserts, plus the creation of rivers in the wilderness “for my chosen people to drink.” Why would God do all this for his people? “That they might announce my praise.” The prophet’s very human expression of God’s motivation sounds much like Cyrus’ motivation for permitting the exiles to return and rebuild their temple — so that the “gods” would bless him.

The Responsorial Psalm, 126, continues the first reading’s theme of the release of the exiles,
“When the Lord brought back the captives of Zion (a name used for Jerusalem), God changed their mourning into laughter and praise.” The Psalmist echoes Second Isaiah, “The Lord has done great things for us, and we are indeed glad.” The reversal of fortune predominates, “Those who sow in tears, will reap rejoicing. Although they go out weeping, carrying the seed to be sown, they come back rejoicing, carrying their sheaves.”

The second reading is part of St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. Paul compares his former way of life with his life after his conversion to Christ. “I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Typical of Paul, he resorts to more extreme language, not so edifying. He notes that he accepted the loss of all things, (his superb education, his zeal for the Torah and all Scripture, his zeal for and practice of Judaism). All of these he now considers “rubbish.” This translation is a euphemism and a disservice to Paul’s earthy language. The Greek noun he uses, kopria, is correctly translated by a four letter word politely spoken as dung. Paul has interesting thoughts for Christians who are saved because they feel saved, who can give the moment in their life when they were saved. “It is not that I have already taken hold of it, or already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it.  I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize — God’s upward calling in Christ Jesus.”

The gospel reading for this Sunday is one of those awkward stories best labeled as PG-13, the woman caught in adultery. It takes two to commit adultery, yet only the woman is “caught in the act.” While Jesus was teaching the people in his Father’s house, the religious authorities brought forward a woman and made her stand in the middle before all. They remind Jesus that the Torah commands death by stoning of such perpetrators.  They add, “What do you say?” They are testing him, so they could accuse him of something — such as denial of Torah law. An embarrassing situation for all except the haughty accusers.  Jesus’ response: he bends down and writes on the ground with his finger. They press for an answer. Jesus replies, “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” More writing on the ground. The accusers slip away, beginning with the elders. It is conceivable that the author’s use of elders is a teasing reference to the elders who falsely accused Susanna in the Book of Daniel. They got the penalty they wanted to inflict on Susanna — death by stoning.

Two remain in the story — the merciful and the miserable. There is no condemnation. Only forgiveness. “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” The most intriguing part of the story has always been to know what Jesus wrote on the ground. In a Scripture class some years ago, a woman claimed that she knew what Jesus wrote. It was the woman’s name! When asked what the name was, she answered quickly, “Ramona.” Her source, she said, “The beauty shop!” There are many suggestions. An old one is this, that Jesus was writing the sins of the accusers on the ground. In a class for juvenile offenders, the chaplain asked the kids for suggestions. One young man responded not to what Jesus wrote, but why he bent over, “Just in case some dude started throwing rocks.” The solution favored by this writer: Jesus was so embarrassed that he bent over and played an ancient form of Tic Tac Toe. A worthier ending to this column can be this. The story of Jesus’ forgiving without condemnation pokes at our own conscience to ask ourselves, “Can we do the same?”