Sunday Scripture: The Fifth Sunday in Lent (Year C)



Welcome to this, the thirty-fourth of my reflections on the theology of the Sunday readings at Mass.

Thank you for taking the time to read my blog. I sincerely hope that this reflection will inspire you. You might find that it answers a few questions you may have, but most of all I hope that it will show you how fantastic Sacred Scripture is and perhaps enable you to share some of my love and passion for the Bible as you begin to comprehend how layered and multi-faceted it is, and what a carefully considered part of the Mass the readings are.

If you want to know how these posts came about, please read my first post in this series here.

I would like to think this regular blog would be a great help to anyone who reads at Mass, to enable them to foster a deeper understanding of the message they are trying to impart to the congregation.

There are several different ways to read this post. I would suggest the first thing to do is to look at the relevant readings. You might then want to look at the specific commentary for a particular reading. I post the same summary of the featured Biblical books each week, but at the end, under the subheading this week, you will usually find some commentary specific to each week. At the end I post a passage which attempts to draw all the readings together and understand the message.

My reflections are not definitive, but based on my study and perhaps authenticated by careful reference to the Biblical Commentaries and books I list at the bottom each week.

This Sunday the theme for the readings might be summed up as:

The Completeness of God's Forgiveness.

  • First Reading: Isaiah 43:16-21
  • Psalm 125; Response v. 3. 
  • Second Reading: Philippians: 3:8-14.
  • Gospel: John 8:1-11.
Although in Ireland you will be celebrating the Liturgy of Saint Patrick.

First, a short preliminary survey of each of the books.

I will post the same, or similar prelims week on week, for each book as we encounter them, although I may add a little detail specific to each week's readings.

The Book of Isaiah as we know it today in the Bible is actually a collection of writings which represent a tradition that extended over a span of some three hundred years. The whole text can be sub-divided into three major parts: (i) Isaiah 1-39, for the most part, presenting the teaching of the prophet himself, who laboured in Jerusalem from 740 until sometime after 701 B.C.; (ii) Isaiah 40-55 (generally referred to as Deutero-Isaiah (second -Isaiah)), containing the oracles of another prophet in the tradition of Isaiah, who announced God's word to the exiles in Babylon sometime between 550 and 539 B.C.; and (iii) Isaiah 56-66, Trito-Isaiah (third Isaiah), reflecting the same tradition at a later stage in Jerusalem after the Exile but before the arrival of Ezra and Nehemiah, perhaps around 500 B.C.

Isaiah is often considered the greatest of the Old Testament prophets because of the sheer range and vision of his prophecy. As I wrote in my post on the Eucharist, words have great meaning and power for the Hebrews. Thus their names are more than mere labels; they tell the identity, the significance, the sign-value of the person who bears them (hence the significance of the divine name of God for example). The name Isaiah means "God is salvation" and what is most extraordinary perhaps about this book is that it contains prophecies of Jesus, so numerous, so beautiful and so much more famous than any other prophet, that it has been referred to as the "Gospel of Isaiah".

Isaiah has also been called "the Shakespeare of the prophets", for his poetic turn of phrase rivalled only by Job and Psalms for poetic grandeur. At least ten of Isaiah's passages have become unforgettable to all English-speaking peoples, immortalised in Handel's world famous oratorio, The Messiah: 11:1-5; 7:14; 40:9; 60:2-3; 9:2; 9:6; 35:6-6; 40:11; 53:3-6; 53:8.

This prophet and his followers lived long before Christ, yet the detailed prophecies of the life of Christ we find in Isaiah are far more numerous and far more specific than anything else in the Bible. At least seventeen of them were fulfilled in truly remarkable detail.

Take the time to look up the following seventeen passages. These are only part of the more than three hundred different prophecies in the Old Testament that are fulfilled by Christ. Even though the New Testament writers (especially Matthew) deliberately used the style and language of Old Testament prophecies to describe events in the life of Christ—as a modern preacher might use the King James English to describe current events—the statistical odds that one man could fulfil all of these prophecies so completely is not much better than the odds that a monkey could type out Isaiah by randomly throwing marbles at a computer keyboard. Compare:-

1). Isaiah 7:14 with Matthew 1:22-23;
2). Isaiah 9:1-2 with Matthew 4:12-16;
3). Isaiah 9:6 with Luke 2:11 (see also Ephesians 2:14-18);
4). Isaiah 11:1 with Luke 3:23, 32 and Acts 13:22-23;
5). Isaiah 11:2 with Luke 3:22;
6). Isaiah 28:16 with 1 Peter 2:4-6;
7). Isaiah 40:3-5 with Matthew 3:1-3;
8). Isaiah 42:1-4 with Matthew 12:15-21;
9). Isaiah 42:6 with Luke 2:29-32;
10). Isaiah 50:6 with Matthew 26:26, 30, 67;
11). Isaiah 52:14 with Philippians 2:7-11;
12). Isaiah 53:3 with Luke 23:18 and John 1:11; 7:5;
13). Isaiah 53:4 with romans 5:6, 8;
14). Isaiah 53:7 with Matthew 27:12-14, John 1:29 and 1 Peter 1:18-19;
15). Isaiah 53:9 with Matthew 27:57-60;
16). Isaiah 53:12 with Mark 15:28; and
17). Isaiah 61:1-2 with Luke 4:17-21.

This week: "See I am doing a new deed," In the first reading we see the prophecy which Jesus will fulfil in the Gospel. As God's justice, Jesus often challenges our all too human notions of what it means to be just, showing us just how radical God's justice can be. This is because it is concerned not with our own pride, but with selfless care for other.

Psalms is the Bible's manual of inspired song and prayer. The collection of 150 Psalms represents the culmination of a long tradition that extends across almost the full span of the history of ancient Israel, from the Exodus (c. 1280 B.C.) until the last centuries of the Old Testament era (c. 200 B.C.). In Hebrew the canon of the Bible is called the TNK or Tanakh, which consists of Torah (teaching), Nevi'im (Prophets), and Ketuvim (writings)—thus TaNaKh. Psalms makes up the first of the writings in the Hebrew text. One of the most powerful things we know about the Psalms is that this is how Jesus Himself prayed.

This week: the psalm recalls God's past intervention on behalf of the people. The structure suggests a reversal of situation through the use of agricultural language and the use of terms like planting and growth.

The Letter of St. Paul to the Philippians was written by St. Paul in A.D. 54 from Ephesus while he was on his second missionary journey. It's style and theology are typically Pauline, although the letter does show a friendlier side to the Apostle which is more often hidden in his more polemical and formal writings. Philippians is referred to as one of the "captivity epistles" because Paul composed it whilst in prison (1:13). Given this fact, it is remarkably up beat in tone. The letter is almost entirely positive, with only brief warnings and almost no polemics.

This week: Paul teaches how, under the Old Covenant people tried to attain legal righteousness by being faith to it (Deut 6:25), whereas the people of the New Covenant receive divine righteousness through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom 5:17). Legal righteousness depends on human effort apart from the inward grace of God. Paul compares the life of faith to a race where the prize (salvation) is yet to be won. Paul encourages the Philippians to summon their energy and charge ahead after holiness!

The Gospel According to St. John: I have written a detailed exposition on the Gospel of St. John which you can read here.

This week"Woman ... has no one condemned you? ... neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again" (Jn 8: 10-11). Jesus is newness of life for those who open their hearts and, after acknowledging their sins, receive his saving mercy. In today's Gospel text, the Lord offers this gift of his love to the adulteress, who is forgiven and restored to her full human and spiritual dignity. He also offers it to her accusers, but their spirit remains closed and impenetrable.

Here is an invitation to meditate on the paradoxical refusal of his merciful love. It is as though the trial against Jesus were already beginning, a trial that we will relive in a few days during the events of his Passion: it will result in his unjust sentence to death on the cross. On the one hand, the redeeming love of Christ, freely offered to everyone; on the other, the closure of those who, moved by envy, seek a motive to kill him. Accused even of opposing the Law, Jesus is "put to the test": if he absolves the woman caught in flagrant adultery, it will be said that he has transgressed the precepts of Moses; if he condemns her, it will be said that he is inconsistent with his message of mercy towards sinners.

But Jesus does not fall into the trap. By his silence he invites everyone to self-reflection. On the one hand, he invites the woman to acknowledge the wrong committed; on the other, he invites her accusers not to shrink from an examination of conscience: "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her" (Jn 8: 7).

The woman's situation is certainly serious. But the message flows precisely from this situation: in whatever condition we find ourselves, we can always open ourselves to conversion and receive forgiveness for our sins. "Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again" (Jn 8: 11). On Calvary, by the supreme sacrifice of his life, the Messiah will seal for every man and woman the infinite gift of God's pardon and mercy. —Homily of John Paul II 1st April 2001.

Drawing them all together...
The story of the woman caught in adultery is one of my absolute favourites and gives us so much to think about and reflect on. It presents us with another image of salvation whilst addressing the sin and tendency to judgement in us all, using the emotive issues of sexuality and marriage.

Jesus' handling of the situation is radical and innovatory. Instead of justice and condemnation, He introduces mercy and compassion, turning attention away from self-righteousness to inner assessment and humility in the face of our human weakness. Jesus in fact shows us a way beyond justice, the way of mercy and utter forgiveness. But what was He writing on the ground? This is the only passage in the Gospels in which Christ writes anything. Was Jesus writing the sins of the accusers on the ground as suggested in Jer 17:13? Was He writing their names? In Roman legal practice of the time, the judge first wrote the sentence and then read it aloud. Or was He just so furious that he couldn't bring Himself to look at them? Some scholars say that if what He was writing was important it would have been recorded, but I think we still have to ponder the unanswered question.

After what one can imagine as a long moment hanging in the air, Jesus re-engages and the way He re-engages demonstrates His divinity, not because of His cleverness, although His answer does seem impossibly clever. Rather by His love for her which is demonstrated by His compassion. Without impugning the law, He challenges the scribes and Pharisees and beats them at their own game: "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her" (John 8:7). After speaking these words, he resumes writing on the ground...and the crowd disperses, the accusers drop their stones and slowly walk away, no doubt mumbling to each other. Next, much to the woman’s surprise, Jesus, addresses her directly. Now He IS without sin, yet He refuses to condemn her. This does not mean that He condones her sin. Rather He admonishes her to "go, and do not sin again" (John 8:11).

By forgiving so freely, Jesus transcends the demand of justice, in this case death, and seeks to turn a sinner into a righteous person by giving her new life, thus fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah: "see, I am doing something new!" (Isa. 43:19). Jesus Christ is God's justice, who often challenges our all too human notions of what it means to be just. This wiping out of our sins is a source of supreme joy: it shows the true nature of the LORD, His capacity to surprise and amaze us with His wonderful, abundant love. This was seen working in history; the ancient prophet speaks to the people of Israel in their exile; he reminds them of what God did for them, likening their sufferings in Egypt to the oppression of sin.

As with so many episodes in the Gospels, this story remains unfinished. It remains unfinished because we do not know if the woman only took the reprieve Jesus obtained for her from stoning, or if her whole life was changed, turned around. Of more importance to us than speculating about her is our own unfinished story.

There is a connection between today’s Gospel last week's. The thread that links the two is the call to conversion, which is the passage from death to new life. The attitude of the men condemning the woman is much the same as the attitude of the older brother in last week’s Gospel. In neither case do those who consider themselves righteous want to show mercy. Jesus shows us that righteousness, to a very large extent, consists of nothing other than being merciful. Indeed, as we sang for today’s responsorial, "the Lord has done great things for us." We show the joy with which we are filled by allowing ourselves to be changed from self-righteous, judgmental people looking for opportunities to throw stones, into compassionate and forgiving people; women and men who speak and act like Jesus. Only in this way do we, like Christ, show that the power of God's love is stronger than human failure.


Bibliography:

Baker, K., SJ, Inside the Bible, San Francisco: Ignatius, 1998.
Boadt, L., Reading the Old Testament, New York: Paulist Press, 1984.
Brown, R. E., An Introduction to the New Testament, New York, Doubleday, 1997.
Brown, R. et al (Ed) The New Jerome Biblical Commentary, (London: Chapman, 2000).
Catechism of the Catholic Church, New York: Doubleday, 1995.
Dodd, C.H., The Founder of Christianity, (London: Collins, 1978).
Duggan, M., The Consuming Fire, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 1991).
Fuller, R.C., Johnstone, L., Kearns, C., A New Catholic Commentary on Holy Scripture, (London: Nelson, 1969).
Ignatius Catholic Study Bible New Testament, Second Edition RSV, (San Francisco, Ignatius Press, 2001).
Kreeft, P., You Can Understand The Bible, (San Francisco, Ignatius, 2005).
Letellier, R., Sunday & Feastday Sermons Cycles A, B, and C, (New York: St. Pauls, 2011).
Magnificat Monthly Vol. 3, No. 5/ March 2013.
McKenzie, J.L., Dictionary of the Bible, (New York, Touchstone, 1995).
Ratzinger, J., Introduction to Christianity, (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2004).
Ratzinger, J., Jesus of Nazareth, (Bloomsbury, London, 2007).

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