April 7, 2019
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
(Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11)
On Thursday I read an article in the newspaper about a new law imposed in the far-east country of Brunei. In it, it said: “A harsh new criminal law in Brunei — which includes death by stoning for sex between men or for adultery, and amputation of limbs for theft — went into effect on Wednesday, despite an international outcry from other countries, rights groups, celebrities and students.
Brunei, a tiny monarchy on the island of Borneo in Southeast Asia, based its new penal code on Shariah, Islamic law based on the Quran and other writings, though interpretations of Shariah can vary widely.”
Well, today’s Gospel reading couldn’t be timed better.
Now as many of you know, I have always been a fan of the late Archbishop Fulton Sheen. He was popular Catholic radio personality, televangelist, writer (73 books) and retreat giver, among many other noted accomplishments. He was especially popular in the 30’s through the 60’s. Before Protestant televangelists like Oral Roberts, Pat Robertson, Jim baker, Joel Osteen, and many others, Archbishop Sheen had already become successful in this genre.
His show, scheduled in a primetime slot on Tuesday nights at 8:00 p.m., was not expected to challenge the ratings giants at the time of Milton Berle and Frank Sinatra, but did surprisingly well. Berle, known to many early television viewers as "Uncle Miltie" and for using ancient vaudeville material, joked about Sheen, "He uses old material, too", and observed that "if I'm going to be eased off the top by anyone, it's better that I lose to the One for whom Bishop Sheen is speaking." Sheen responded in jest that maybe people should start calling him "Uncle Fultie".
The Roman Catholic Church is in the process of his canonization to sainthood and is the first of three levels heading toward this goal. However, I already refer to him as St. Fulton Sheen, fore in my mind, he is.
In his retreats, on radio and television and his books, there is a sermon he gave that has just as an imperative message today as it did then. I have always enjoyed this sermon, and so, today, instead of something crafted as my own, I will read this sermon Archbishop Sheen gave on the topic of today’s Gospel.
The day after the attempted arrest, a scene took place in which Innocence refused to condemn a sinner. The dilemma of justice and mercy was involved—a dilemma that lay at the heart of the Incarnation. If God is merciful, shall He not forgive sinners? If God is just, shall He not punish them or force them to make amends for their crimes? Being all holy, He must hate sin, otherwise He would not be Goodness. But being all merciful, should He not, like a kind of grandfather, be indifferent to the children smashing the commandments? Somehow or other, His death on the Cross and Resurrection were involved in the answer to this dilemma.
The night before this scene took place, Sacred Scripture reveals one of the most vivid contrasts in all literature; and it is done in two sentences. Our Lord had been teaching all day in the temple; when night came, the Gospel speaks first of Our Lord’s enemies who had been tantalizing and haranguing Him:
And they went back each to his own house.
But of Our Lord it is simply said:
Jesus meanwhile went to the Mount of Olives.
Among all those who were in the temple—friends or foes—there was not one without a house, except Our Lord. Truly He said of Himself:
Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air their resting places; The Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.
In all Jerusalem, He probably was the only homeless and houseless man. While men went to their houses to take counsel with their fellow men, He went to the Mount of Olives to consult not with flesh and blood, but with His Father. He knew that in a short time this Garden would be a sacred retreat where He would sweat large drops of blood in His terrible conflict with the powers of evil. During the night, He slept Eastern-fashion on the green turf under ancient olive trees so twisted and gnarled in their passion of growth as to foreshadow the tortuous Passion that would be His own.
The season was the Feast of Tabernacles, which brought not only a vast concourse of people from all over the world but also produced general excitement, much prayer, and some relaxation. It was only natural that it should degenerate into an occasional case, here and there, of license and immorality. Such had evidently happened. For early the next morning, as Our Lord appeared at the temple and began to teach, the Scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman who had been found committing adultery. So set were they on their barren controversy with the Messiah that they did not scruple to use a woman’s shame to score a point. Apparently, there was no question about her guilt. The indelicate, almost indecent way in which the men told the story, reveals that the facts could not be challenged. They said:
Master, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery.
Caught in the act! What sneaking, spying, and rottenness are hidden in their words! The accusers brought her into the midst of the crowd while Our Blessed Lord was teaching. The “holier than thou” men who had caught her in the act were very anxious that she should be publicly paraded, even to the point of interrupting the discourse of Our Blessed Lord. Human nature is base when it headlines and parades crimes of others before their fellow men. The pot thinks it is clean if it calls the kettle black. Some faces are never so [happy] as when regaling a scandal, which the generous heart would cover and the devout heart pray over. The more base and corrupt a man, the more ready is he to charge crimes to others. Those who want credit for good character foolishly believe that the best way to get it is to denounce others. Vicious people like a monopoly on their vices, and when they find others with the same vices, they condemn them with an intensity that the good never feel. All one has to do to learn the faults of men is to listen to their favorite charges against others. In those days there were no scandal columns (gossip magazines, or opinion columns in newspapers, etc.), but there were scandalmongers. Dragging her into full view of the crowd was their way of dragging her into publicity. The hooting throng pushed her forward, the woman hid her face in her hands and pulled her veil over her head to shield her shame. As they dragged their trembling prisoner, exposed before the curious eyes of men to the bitterest degradation that any Eastern woman could suffer, they said to Our Blessed Lord with feigned humility:
Master, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Moses in his law, prescribed that such persons should be stoned to death; what of Thee? What is Thy sentence?
(JOHN 8:4, 5)
They were right in saying that the Law of Moses ordered stoning for adultery. Our Lord instinctively discerned their mock respect in calling Him “Master” He knew that it was merely a cloak for their own sinister designs. On the one hand, His soul shrank from the spectacle before Him; for He had taught the sanctity of marriage, and this woman had violated it. On the other hand, He knew that the Scribes and Pharisees saw in the incident nothing but a chance of tripping Him in His speech. He knew they were ready to use her as the passive instrument of their own hatred against Him—not because they were morally indignant at a sin, nor vigilant of the rights of God, but only to provoke the people against Him.
A double trick was hidden in presenting her to Our Blessed Lord. First of all, because of the conflict between the Jews and the Romans. The Romans, who were the conquerors of the country, had reserved to themselves the right to put anyone to death. But there was another side; the Law of Moses was that a woman who had been taken in adultery should be stoned. Here was the dilemma in which they put Him: If Our Blessed Lord let the woman off without the death penalty, He would be disobeying the Law of Moses; but if He respected the Law of Moses, and said that she should be stoned because of adultery, then He would be encouraging the breaking of the Roman law. In either case He would be caught. The people would oppose Him for violating the Mosaic Law, while the Roman courts would charge Him with violating their law. He was either a heretic to Moses or a traitor to the Romans.
There was still another trick in their question. Either He would have to condemn the woman, or release her. If He condemned her, they would say He was not merciful; but He called Himself merciful. He had taken dinner with publicans and sinners, He allowed a common woman to wash His feet at dinner; should He condemn her, He could no longer say that He was a “friend of sinners.” Did He not say?
That is what the Son of Man has come for, to search out and save what was lost.
On the other hand, if He released her, then He would be acting in contradiction to the Sacred Law of Moses, which He had come to fulfill. Did He not say?
Do not think that I have come to set aside the Law and the Prophets; I have not come to set them aside, but to bring them to perfection.
Since He said He was God, the Law of Moses must have come from Him. If He disobeyed that Law, He was negating His own Divinity. Hence their questions, “Moses in his Law prescribed that such persons should be stoned to death; what of Thee? What is Thy sentence?”
It would be a hard question for a mere man to solve, but He was God as well as man. He Who had already reconciled justice and mercy in His Incarnation now applied it further as He leaned over and wrote something on the ground—it is the only time (that we know of from Scripture) in the life of Our Blessed Lord that He ever wrote. What He wrote, no man knows. The Gospel simply says:
Jesus bent down and began writing on the ground with His finger.
They had invoked the Law of Moses. So would He! Whence did the Law of Moses come? Who wrote it? Whose finger? The Book of Exodus answers:
With that, Moses came down from the mountain, carrying in his hand the two tablets of the law, with writing on either side, God’s workmanship; a Divine hand had traced the characters they bore.
They reminded Him of the Law! He in turn reminded them that He had written the Law! The same finger, in a symbolical sense, which was now writing in the tablets of stone of the temple floor, also wrote on the tablets of stone on Sinai! Had they eyes to see the Giver of the Law of Moses standing before them? But they were so bent on ensnaring Him in His speech that they ignored the writing and kept on hurling questions; so sure were they that they had trapped Him.
When He found that they continued to question Him, He looked up and said to them, whichever of you is free from sin shall cast the first stone at her. Then He bent down again, and went on writing on the ground.
(JOHN 8:7, 8)
Moses had written on stone his Law of death against unchastity. Our Lord would not destroy the Mosaic Law, but perfect it by enunciating a higher Law: none but the pure may judge! He was summoning a new jury; only the innocent may condemn! He looked from the Law to conscience, and from the judgment of men to the judgment of God. Those who have guilt on their souls must withhold judgment.
A rusty old shield one day prayed, “O sun, illumine me” and the sun answered, “First, polish yourself.” Should, therefore, this woman be judged by men who were guilty? It was a solemn affirmation that only the sinless have a right to judge. If on this earth there is anybody really innocent, it will be found that his mercy is stronger than his justice. True it is that a judge on the bench may very often condemn a criminal for a crime of which he himself is guilty; but in his official capacity he acts in God’s name, not in his own. These self-constituted accusers were no fit subjects to defend or execute the Mosaic Law. Our Blessed Lord was putting in one sentence what He had already said in the Sermon on the Mount.
Do not judge others, or you yourselves will be judged. As you have judged, so you will be judged, by the same rule; award shall be made you as you have made award, in the same measure. How is it that thou canst see the speck of dust which is in thy brother’s eye, and art not aware of the beam which is in thy own? By what right wilt thou say to thy brother, wait, let me rid thy eye of that speck, when there is a beam all the while in thy own? Thou hypocrite, take the beam out thy own eye first, and so thou shalt have clear sight to rid thy brother’s of the speck.
As He wrote on the ground, the Scribes and the Pharisees had stones in their hands ready to execute judgment. One would reach to his neighbor’s hand, take out his stone, weigh both in his own hand to see which was the heavier, and give the lighter one back, that he might cast the heavier one at the woman. Some of these men had kept themselves from her vice, because they had other vices. Some are exempt from certain vices simply because of the presence of other vices. Just as one disease is cured by another disease, so one vice often excludes another vice; the alcoholic may not be the thief, though he is often a liar; and the thief, like Judas Iscariot, may not necessarily be the adulterer, though the movies always paint Judas that way. There are many people who sin by pride, by avarice, by the craving for power, and think that they are virtuous simply because these sins in modern society bear the note of respectability. The respectable sins are the more odious, for Our Lord said that they make men like “whitened sepulchers, outside clean, inside full of dead men’s bones.” The baser sins of the poor create public burdens, such as social service and prisons, and are frowned upon; but the respectable sins, such as corruption in high public office, disloyalty to country, teaching of evil in universities, are excused, ignored or even praised as virtues.
Our Lord here implied that He even regarded the respectable sins as more odious than those which society reproved. He never condemned those whom society condemned, for they had already been condemned. But He did condemn those who sinned and who denied that they were sinners.
He now looked up at each in turn, beginning with the eldest; it was one of those calm penetrating looks which anticipate the last judgment.
And they began to go out one by one, beginning with the eldest.
Perhaps the older they were, the more they had sinned. He did not condemn them; rather he made them condemn themselves. Perhaps He looked up at one old man, and his conscience glowed with the word “thief”—and he dropped his stone and fled. A still younger one saw his conscience charge him as “murderer”, and he left; one by one they left until only one young man was left. As the Savior gazed at this last survivor, it could have been “adulterer” that his conscience charged him; he dropped his stone and fled. No one was left!
But why did He stoop over and write again? Since they appealed to the Mosaic Law; so would He reappeal. Moses broke the first tablets on which the finger of God had written, when he found his people adoring the golden calf. So God wrote a second tablet of stone, and this was brought into the Ark of the Covenant, where it was put on the mercy seat and sprinkled with innocent blood. Such would be the way the Law of Moses would be brought to perfection by the sprinkling with Blood—the Blood of the Lamb.
By defending the woman, Christ proved Himself a friend of sinners, but only of those who admitted that they were sinners. He had to go to the social outcasts to find bigness of heart and unmeasured generosity which, according to Him, constituted the very essence of love. Though they were sinners, their love lifted them above the self-wise and the self-sufficient, who never bent their knees in prayer for pardon. He came to put a harlot above a Pharisee, a penitent robber above a High Priest, and a prodigal son above his exemplary brother. To all the phonies and fakers who would say that they could not join the Church because His Church was not holy enough, He would ask, “How holy must the Church be before you will enter into it?” If the Church were as holy as they wanted it to be, they would never be allowed into it! In every other religion under the sun, in every Eastern religion from Buddhism to Confucianism, there must always be some purification before one can commune with God. But Our Blessed Lord brought a religion where the admission of sin is the condition of coming to Him. “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are ill.”
He looked up to the woman, who was standing alone, and asked her:
Woman where are thy accusers? Has no one condemned thee?
The Mosaic Law required two witnesses to a crime before sentence could be carried out; they were even to assist in executing sentence. But these so-called defenders of the Mosaic Law were no longer present to bear witness. Notice, Our Blessed Lord called her “woman.” There were many other names that He might have given her; but He made her stand for all the women of the world who had aspirations for cleanliness and holiness in union with Him. There was a touch of playful irony in His first question. “Woman, where are they?” He was drawing attention to the fact that she was alone! He had excluded her accusers. In that solitariness He asked:
Has no one condemned thee?
No one, Lord.
If there was no one to cast the stone, neither would He. She who came to Him as a Judge, found Him a Savior. The accusers called Him “Master” she called Him, not “Sir,” but “Lord,” as if to recognize that she was standing here in the presence of Someone Who was infinitely superior to herself. And her faith in Him was justified, for He turned to her and said:
I will not condemn thee either. Go and do not sin again henceforward.
But why would He not condemn her? Because He would be condemned for her. Innocence would not condemn, because Innocence would suffer for the guilty. Justice would be saved, for He would pay the debt of her sins; mercy would be saved, for the merits of His death would apply to her soul. Justice is first, then mercy; first the satisfaction, then the pardon. Our Lord really was the only One in that crowd who had the right to take up the stone to execute judgment against her, because He was without sin. On the other hand, He did not make light of sin, for He assumed its burden. Forgiveness cost something and the full price would be paid on the hill of the three Crosses where justice would be satisfied and mercy extended. It was this release from the slavery of sin that He called the beautiful name of freedom.
Why then, if it is the Son Who makes you free men, you will have freedom in earnest.
One final word of my own. Real people make mistakes. Real people are flawed. This isn’t to be characterized as justification for those who commit evil, but it is meant as a reminder that none of us are perfect in the eyes of God. There are most certainly various things that should never happen; murder, pedophilia, terrorism, adultery and the like. In a world that seems intent on imposing extreme views on others, when Christ’s actions and words show a far more merciful reaction, we would do well to show a Progressive Christian perspective that is very justified in the example of Christ. We need to love like God loves – fully and unconditionally – always.
As an example, clergy folk, like myself, are sometimes expected to be perfect, but we are not nearly as perfect as others want us to be, nor can we be, because we are flawed and human also. Hopefully, we are better and more holy in ways that we should be. I try to be. So, in closing, we all need to be better Christians and remember how Christ treated those caught in sin and do the same toward those in our lives. The words of ++Fulton Sheen are so poignant and worth repeating an additional time:
To all the phonies and fakers who would say that they could not join the Church because His Church was not holy enough, He would ask, “How holy must the Church be before you will enter into it?” If the Church were as holy as they wanted it to be, they would never be allowed into it!
This is why Christ instituted the Church in the first place; because we all need to become holy and in the Church is sort of how we do it!
Let us pray.
In today’s gospel Jesus lays out a challenge to us when he says “If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her”. We pray for the grace to be kind and charitable to our friends and neighbors, to not condemn others and to recognize, that as Christians, God is our only judge. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for the grace to forgive those who we think have wronged us, our family or our friends and for a permanent spirit of reconciliation in our daily lives. We pray to the Lord.
We pray for an end to intolerance in the world and in our own country. We pray particularly for a recognition that we are all the created wonder of our loving God and Father. We pray to the Lord.
On this Fifth Sunday of Lent, we pray for all those engaged in penitential exercises and works of charity, that their commitment, sacrifices and good intentions be recognized and rewarded by the Lord. We pray to the Lord.
We pray that all peoples will take on a spirit of life, that all terrorism and killing of others will be replaced with respect, love, and tolerance. We pray to the Lord.
That we all Christians remember that if the Church were only for the holy, not one of us would be allowed in it, and for those who no longer attend church, may come back in full realization there is always a church that will be welcoming and fulfilling and that Christ is calling you. We pray to the Lord.
We bow our heads and remember in silence our own personal intentions and the intentions of those who have asked for our prayers (pause). We pray to the Lord.
Merciful God, we know that we are all sinners. Help us to be compassionate toward one another and to remember that you are always ready to offer us forgiveness and new life. God of love and mercy, you sent your only Son to us to redeem us from our sins. Look with mercy upon us now as we pray for all those in need. We ask all this through the same Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.
God Love You +++
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, CA USA