Saturday, March 20, 2010

Set Free

(5th Sunday of Lent, C)

Brothers and sisters, on this last Sunday before Holy Week we hear on the most beloved of Jesus’ acts of forgiveness and salvation, the story of the woman caught in adultery. This passage is full of beautiful and challenging spiritual teaching, and I thought that one way we could approach it is through the various characters.

The scribes and Pharisees. These are the bad guys in the passage, but we shouldn’t let their dastardliness distract us from the ordinariness of their spiritual error. It’s one that people commit all the time. They are so into the woman’s sin that they forget to notice their own sins. We do the same thing whenever we engage in gossip and detraction, pointing out to each other all of the bad things other people do. If we do this habitually we can learn to absolve ourselves and blame everyone else for whatever is wrong in our lives and the world. The sorry state of my religious community, my friendship, my workplace or my marriage is everyone else’s fault and I don’t notice the contribution of my own sin and selfishness. I once saw a “motivational” poster I liked very much. It had a picture of chain breaking at the weakest link. The message said, “The only consistent feature in all of your dissatisfying relationships is you.” The devil is perfectly happy to have us as zealous as could be in our condemnation of sin, just as long as it’s somebody else’s sin and not our own.

The missing man. Personally, I don’t know much about adultery, but I know this: you can’t commit it by yourself. ‘It takes two to Tango,’ as is said. So where’s the adulterous man? He’s missing from the scene. This reminds us that we always have to be careful in handing out blame. Rarely is someone individually responsible for evil. In fact, when we ask the question of what’s wrong with the world there is only one rational answer me: “Me.” To take responsibility for our own sins rather than blaming each other is the beginning of conforming our lives to the Cross of Christ. One of my favorite of the Desert Fathers, Abba John the Dwarf, put it this way: “We have cast off the light burden, that is to say self-accusation, and taken up a heavy burden, that is to say self-justification.” Let’s throw off the heavy burden of blame and take up the light burden of humility.

The woman. We should notice how she teaches us that it doesn’t matter how we get to the presence of Jesus. It wasn’t her idea to end up at his feet! But once there, she recognizes him for Who He is. She calls him “sir,” but the word is kyrie, there being no distinction between ‘sir’ and ‘Lord’ in the Greek of the New Testament. This poor woman is dragged before Jesus, presumably against her will, but once there she receives his kindness and salvation. Therefore, if our own contrition for our sins is weak or imperfect, we shouldn’t worry. All that matters is that we get to the presence of Jesus and recognize him when we get there.

Jesus. What is Jesus’ concern as he receives the adulterous woman? He does not deny that she has sinned, but he is not interested in condemning her for what has happened in the past. Jesus only concern is to protect her from danger, condemnation, guilt, and shame and to set her free to fulfill his command, “do not sin anymore.” That’s the gift we each have in Christ, to let go of whatever has gone before, and be set free for a future of holiness. I once told a priest in confession that I really just needed a fresh start. He said, “Fresh starts are the Lord’s specialty.” As Oscar Wilde put it, “The only difference between the saint and the sinner is that every saint has a past and every sinner has a future.”

Brothers and sisters, let us let go of blame, notice or own sins, and become that sinner with a future. It is Jesus who sets us free for a future of freedom and holiness.