Welcome! Find this Sunday’s readings here.
1st Reading: Isaiah 43:16-21
We are back in Isaiah this week. Quick setup – Isaiah is 1 of the 4 major prophets. Often dubbed “the 5th gospel,” he covers a ton of ground, does not write chronologically, and can be difficult to follow. Scholarly work on Isaiah to date could fill an entire library. The book of Isaiah is broken into 2 major parts:
1) The Book of Judgment (ch 1-39) – central theme: Israel’s unfaithfulness to God
2) The Book of Consolation (ch 40-66) – central theme: Despite this, God has not and will not abandon you.
Israel was conquered by the Babylonian army around 586 BC. Back into “slavery” (exile) they went, for 70 years. This timeframe fulfilled Jeremiah’s prophecy. He tried to tell them to turn back to God, but they didn’t, so here they are. Here is a painting of the exile with the temple in the background.
Isaiah 41 sets such a beautiful tone of consolation, and it’s so straight forward. God says:
“But you, Israel, my servant, Jacob, whom I have chosen, offspring of Abraham my friend—You whom I have taken from the ends of the earth and summoned from its far-off places … You are my servant; I chose you, I have not rejected you—Do not fear: I am with you; do not be anxious: I am your God. I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand” (Is 41: 8-10). Consoling indeed.
The reading walks us beautifully through the events of the people’s past, many of which we explored last week. God saved Israel from Egypt (“he opens a way in the sea”), he trapped the Egyptian army in that sea (“lead out chariots and horsemen, a powerful army”), etc. But God tells them not to remember this, and that instead they should look forward to what God is doing for them now – He is doing something new. Isaiah delivers a poignant line at the end when he refers to Israel as “the people whom I formed for myself.” Truly we are formed for God, and this comes into play in the second reading from Paul.
Isaiah’s words are meant to reassure Israel, give them a peaceful heart. They were doubtful that God still loves them. And can’t we identify with that? When we are“exiled” into a painful time in our lives – mental, physical, spiritual, or relational – it may seem God doesn’t walk with us. When it is time to carry a heavy cross, turn to these words for consolation from Isaiah 41 and 43.
RESPONSORIAL PSALM 126
“The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.”
This is a reminder of God’s great gifts to the Israelites. This psalm was written after the people had returned from exile – after the 70 years were complete – to their home in Jerusalem. (This is similar to last week’s theme, when the people were freed from their 40 year punishment in the desert, and they were finally freed.) The term “captives of Zion” equates to “Israelites”: “When the Lord brought back the captives of Zion, we were like men dreaming. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongues with rejoicing.”
2nd Reading: Philippians 3:8-14
Philippians is often referred to “the letter of joy.” Paul wrote this joyful piece from jail, which makes it all the more powerful and intriguing, given the suffering he endured. Thematically, we see Paul’s authenticity here; he shares his joys and fears, sufferings and hopes for the future of the Church.
At this point in the letter, Paul turns to the task for every Christian including himself: accomplishing the final goal of Heaven. He desired to leave everything behind and follow Jesus to the end. “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.” He depends on “faith to know him and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death.” Let’s pause here.
Paul says that to know his resurrection, we must share in his suffering – be “conformed to his death.” That is a profound point to ponder. Although we don’t like suffering and we rather wish it didn’t exist, it is through the act of suffering that we are able to more fully share in Christ’s life, love, and resurrection. I once heard it put rather well by a priest: If we are born in God’s image and likeness, we are called to “look like” him as best we can. We prefer to look like the beautiful face of the resurrected Jesus, the face of love, kindness and free of pain. Most artists depict this face. But to only recognize that face of Jesus would be to look past what He did for us. Jesus’ face was also badly beaten and bloodied. Sometimes we are called to look like this face of Jesus – His suffering face. God is not asking us to like the suffering. But he does call us to bear all suffering with grace, confident that He is carrying the cross with us. If over the course of our lives we have embraced the opportunities to look like both the resurrected and suffering faces of Jesus, we have indeed received a great gift. When we suffer – in large or small ways – we are more fully united with Him. We resemble his image and likeness, which is how He created us, even more. In that way we have answered the call to discipleship well. When we see that suffering brings us closer to Christ, an amazing transformation takes place. We are able to – with God’s help – actually find joy in our suffering. Just like Paul.
Paul ends by sharing how hard it is to attain maturity in being Christ-like. He acknowledges that he has yet to reach his full potential, “It is not that … I have attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus.” This is why I love Paul. Great saint that he is, he never allows himself to think that he “has arrived.” That he is done trying. Rather, he wants so badly to allow Christ to literally “take possession” of his thoughts and actions. He reveals that he falls frequently, he often just can’t be perfect. Nevertheless, he strains forward to what lies ahead: “I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling.” If we could also see ourselves as Paul sees himself, be more forgiving of ourselves, and reach to God for help, how transformed our lives might be. May we never tire of getting up again when we fall.
Gospel Reading: John 8:1-11
The Woman Caught in Adultery
A key thread through today’s readings is “the reassurance of God.” In the 1st reading we saw Israel feel abandoned by God. Isaiah’s words console them. In the 2nd reading Paul is literally abandoned (in jail), but is reassured by his relationship with Christ. More mature than the Israelites, Paul knows that he must dig deep for courage and finish the race strong. In the gospel, a woman faces certain death and permanent abandonment. But Jesus remains at her side and reassures her. He reflects the words of Isaiah 41 in a very literal way.
PART 1: THE CROWD AND THE WOMAN
Jesus is in the thick of his public ministry at this point in John’s gospel. As he continues to perform miracles, he causes quite a stir wherever he goes. Here, the Jews are trying to trap Jesus. They bring him a woman who has committed adultery. They expose and humiliate her in front of everyone. The punishment for adultery, according to Mosaic law was death by stoning (Leviticus 20). This was a gruesome way to die. Some methods included tying the criminal’s hands behind the back and throwing him/her off a cliff onto a pile of large, jagged rocks. Then a large rock might be dropped and/or people would throw grapefruit sized “stones” at the person’s face. This woman did not want to be issued this sentence.
The crowd questioned Jesus specifically “to test him.” Pope Benedict frames it: “Those questioning Jesus were aware of his mercy and his love for sinners and were curious to see how he would manage in such a case which, according to Mosaic law, was crystal clear.” If he says yes she should be stoned, then where is His merciful love? If he says she shouldn’t be stoned, he breaks the Mosaic law, which forbids adultery. We might say Jesus is between a rock and a hard place.
Then Jesus does a curious thing. He is silent, he does not immediately respond. Perhaps this was to allow the woman to acknowledge the wrong she had committed, and also to allow the people to undergo a personal examination of conscience. He writes with his finger on the ground. Though we have no way of knowing what he wrote, we do know that God has written with his finger in many places in the bible. He created the heavens with his finger (Psalm 8), He wrote the law with his finger (on the 10 commandments), he casts out demons with his finger (Luke 11). Some scholars suggest that he may have written the names of those present in the ground, or perhaps, their sins. Wouldn’t that shock you? “Hey wait a minute, that’s my sin! How does he know that? Erase it!” Whatever is actually written, this action opens their eyes to their sins. Jesus tells them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” The people walk away, beginning with the elders (who are the wiser among them). They know that they too could be in the center of that circle for the wrong they have done. And couldn’t we all.
PART 2: JESUS AND THE WOMAN
Jesus asks, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replies no. Then Jesus says “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, do not sin anymore.” By extending His mercy, he has saved her from a brutal, terrible death. How amazing that must have felt. God saves us from a brutal, terrible existence – eternal separation from the Father – every time we repent and receive His mercy. He asks us to “Go, and sin no more.” Though we will fall again in the future, the point is to try harder. To be conscious of what causes us to fall. Over time, we truly will improve. “Go and sin no more” is echoed in the act of contrition:
My God, I am sorry for my sins with all my heart. In choosing to do wrong and failing to do good, I have sinned against you whom I should love above all things. I firmly intend, with your help, to do penance, to sin no more, and to avoid whatever leads me to sin. Our Savior Jesus Christ suffered and died for us. In his name, my God, have mercy.
St. Bede ties up commentary on this reading nicely: “Christ, who twice bends down to write on the ground, teaches us to bend down low in humility to examine ourselves both before and after addressing the faults of our neighbor.”
This is a thought-provoking reading, no doubt.It raises as many questions as answers. I keep going back to a challenging line in this year’s workbook for lectors: “Neither he [Jesus] nor anyone else can condemn her. Our sins, those freely chosen acts of selfishness we make, condemn us, not God or man.”
See you next week – Palm Sunday! Follow Banquet of the Word throughout Holy Week for in-depth commentary on the Passion and the Triduum.