The courage to be a forgiven sinner

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5th Sunday of Lent, Year C: March 17, 2013
Isa 43:16-21; Ps 126; Phil 3:8-14; John 8:1-11

In response, they went away one by one… until Jesus was left alone with the woman before him. Our Lord Jesus had not told any member of that group to leave; he also had not told any to stay. Yet all of the accusing Pharisees left; while the accused woman stayed there with Jesus. Why? What made the difference?

It’s not very difficult to see: the situation of each one had changed, in a way that made many want to leave, and one want to stay.

  • The Pharisees had arrived in a powerful position: righteous; pointing the finger at a woman caught in the very act of a terrible sin; and ready to entrap our Lord Jesus by forcing him to either publicly contradict the morality of the Law of Moses, or else to publicly condemn a sinner.
  • Whereas the woman had arrived publicly accused, her sin exposed to all, her life about to end by being stoned to death. She was utterly ashamed; stripped of all dignity; and terrified.
  • Yet our Lord proceeded to expose Pharisees as sinners themselves. He did not reveal their sins to others, as far as we can tell, but rather he held up their sins to them, making them remember again, and making them know that he knew.
  • While at the same time he treated the accused woman with dignity and mercy.
  • They felt incredibly uncomfortable, and they left.
  • She felt incredibly safe, and she stayed.

So it is not hard to understand their different reactions, is it?

And yet, notice that our Lord had actually brought them to the same position: the Pharisees and the woman, each revealed to be a sinner, deserving punishment, not deserving to punish others; yet each loved by our Lord Jesus, shown mercy, not condemned, but urged to turn away from their sin and change their life. The same position, the same offer: to the Pharisees, uncomfortable and unacceptable; to the woman, a glorious gift of new life.

St. Paul would later write to the Corinthians:

…we are the aroma of Christ… among those who are being saved and among those who are perishing, to the latter an odor of death that leads to death, to the former an odor of life that leads to life. (2 Cor 2:15-16)

We understand the attitude of the Pharisees because it is the attitude of the world, then and now, in all centuries and all cultures. It is the division of all actions and all people into two categories: on the one side, what is considered good and what is considered excusable, that is, not bad in any way that really matters; on the other side, what is considered truly bad and unforgivable. Don’t think that this isn’t the attitude of those around us, even if they use words like “tolerant” and “inclusive” and “diverse” and “progressive”: it’s still the same division. What falls on each side of the line changes; but the line does not, and neither does the pattern of sorting actions so as to make the speaker righteous and able to point the finger at those on the other side of the line. It is the same pattern.

Whereas the forgiveness of Christ is just as shocking and new today as it was back then. See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

The world does not know forgiveness. It knows how to excuse and it knows how to condemn. But it does not know how to forgive. It does not know how to say: “What you did matters; your sin was terrible and it caused real hurt and did real harm; but I will not hold it against you; I will not take vengeance upon you nor desire it; I will seek your good and exercise true generous love for you.” The world does not know how to forgive; which is partly because it does not have the power to change; it does not have the power to change one’s guilty self, nor to change others.

But our Lord Jesus forgives; and he does have the power to change. For this is his righteousness: not the false righteousness of the Pharisees that hides guilt behind a false front and points the accusing finger at others; but a righteousness that forgives others and in fact makes them righteous also. (cf. Rom 3:25-26)

Every saint is a sinner who has let himself or herself be forgiven and transformed by Christ. Every one! I have a little book entitled: Saints Behaving Badly: The cutthroats, crooks, trollops, con men, and devil worshippers who became saints.” It picks out 28 especially colorful life stories of those redeemed and transformed by Christ. And perhaps my story or your story is not colorful enough to make the cut; but it is the same story. And that is why we begin every Mass like an AA meeting: “Hello, my name is Father Dan, and I am a sinner!” (We just use different words: “I confess to almighty God and to you, my brothers and sisters, that I have greatly sinned…”) And that is why, when we tell others the good news of the Gospel, it is not and must never be a matter of us pointing the finger at others; rather, as my late mother used to say, it is just one beggar telling another beggar where to find food.

For it is Christ who, in his true righteousness, can make us righteous as well. And that is why great sinners of the last 20 centuries have been ready to let Christ remake them. St. Paul was one of them, and that is why we hear him write in our second reading:

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… but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God…

The forgiveness of Christ is just as shocking and new today as it was back then. To be a sinner, forgiven, loved, and transformed: this was unacceptable to the Pharisees that day, and they went away; but it was a glorious gift to the woman who had been caught in adultery, and she stayed.

And how about you? Our Lord Jesus continues to exercise his power to forgive and heal and set free, especially through confession, the sacrament of penance and reconciliation. This sacrament is offered each day here at St. Martin’s. This Wednesday evening at 6:30 it will be offered here, and at parishes across the metro area. And this Thursday evening at 7 p.m. there will be many priests available here at our Lenten penance service.

Earlier today, our new Holy Father, Pope Francis, said at Mass:

It is not easy to trust oneself to the mercy of God, because [His mercy] is an unfathomable abyss—but we must do it!… He forgets [our sins], He kisses you, He embraces you, and He says to you, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, sin no more.’… We ask for the grace of never tiring of asking pardon, for He never tires of pardoning.


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