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Homily - Fifth Sunday in Lent C - Bishop McKeown


Sunday, 3 April 2022 

We are now just ten days away from the great and terrible events of Holy Week. In Jerusalem, Jesus encounters more opposition from the religious leaders who use a woman caught in adultery to try and catch him out. This is not just about the fate of one woman. This another opportunity for Jesus to reveal who God is – and it challenges us to repent of false images of God. What might we learn?

Firstly, what happens in the Gospel is not just a problem from 2,000 years ago. Even though adultery involves two people, the woman alone is facing execution because she was unfaithful to her husband and legal master. The male partner in the incident was not threatened with stoning because his actions did not undermine the social fabric where the wife was seen as more of a possession than a partner. That age of oppressive patriarchy is over – but the relationship between men and women is still a complex area. Abusive relationships are worryingly common. Casual and semi-detached relationships are seen as the norm. Commitment and permanency are often portrayed as unreasonable limitations to my freedom in a battle of the sexes. The current culture's lack of any vision is destructive of dignity and terribly damaging to children. Family is a core cell of human society. Society is damaged when core relationships are seen as less important than my right to do what I want. A self-indulgent culture ultimately does not increase human freedom. It damages the structures that enable healthy free choices to exist. The first thing that this Gospel passage says to me is that we have to develop and proclaim a Christ-centred understanding of equality and complementarity in the context of family. Like Jesus, that will meet much resistance.

Secondly, Jesus is a master at challenging the assumptions of his opponents. They want to trap him into either condemning the woman or saying that the Jewish Law should not be applied. For them it is a black and white issue. But Jesus does not just offer an intellectual response. He puts the spotlight back on those who are questioning him. He asks them to look, not at the sins of someone else, but at their own hearts. The truth is very unsettling. And they slip away quietly, beginning with the most senior members. And then Jesus speaks to the woman who is left alone with him. His words to her avoid the either/or question and replies with a two-part insight – "Neither do I condemn you; go your way, and do not sin anymore." He does not play down the reality of sin – but he proclaims that forgiveness and a fresh start are always possible. That is the constant message of Christ's ministry. He goes to those who feel most unlovable or unforgiveable and speaks of the Father's passionate concern for the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost child. The God who made each of us in the divine image and likeness never loses sight of our dignity. God always sees what we can become through the power of forgiveness. God is not merely fixated on where we have been. Jesus sees a person who has been scarred but he sees beyond the sin and looks at a person. Those who focus our attention only on the past of individuals or of societies simply leave us trapped there with one-dimensional identities that define us. Jesus wants to help us acknowledge the past and build on it. When the past become merely a heap of ruins, it is mined for stones to throw at other people. Only forgiveness and healing can transform it into a foundation for the future.

Thirdly, when Jesus is left alone with the woman, it is interesting that has been writing on the ground and looks up at her. Jesus never looks down on anyone – except to give them a hand up. That was the experience that St Paul had which enabled him to write that passage in the letter to the Philippians. He has gone beyond believing that God's love had to be won by a rigorous and often heartless keeping of the Law. On the road to Damascus, he was struck down and sensed Jesus speaking to him directly. He was blinded and only later was able to see - and to see things differently. He had to lose one way of looking at the world and be gifted a new way. Our own penitential joinery is never merely about us fighting temptations or us getting our slate washed clean of sin. It is always about an encounter with Jesus who looks us straight in the face and says "I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more."

Jesus challenges the scribes and the Pharisees in their understanding of God and sin. But he also constantly challenges us. We live in a society that both tries to deny that there is sin in the world – and then loves to condemn those who offend society's new morals and values. Jesus tackles both these temptations. He also undermines those in church who have hard hearts and are tempted to feel superior and like to think that they are not sinners like other people. Like St Paul, we seek only the perfection that comes through faith in Christ and is from God and based on faith. It is the love of Christ on Calvary that makes all things new. That is a gift to be received. We do not have to live on the rubble of a recycled past. Resurrection was possible for the woman in the Gospel and for St Paul. The stone can be rolled away from the tomb of the past that imprisons many people.

Thus, our Synodal Pathway is not merely about structural and cosmetic changes. The process asks us how we can allow ourselves to be resurrected to a renewed way of being church. Our only purpose is to makes Christ's resurrection accessible for the hurting people of our time – people who, like the woman in the Gospel, are frightened, embarrassed and ashamed and need to meet Jesus in prayer, the scriptures, the sacraments and our parishes. Can we pray this week to have hearts like Jesus and courage to challenge the destructive assumptions of our culture? That would be the best preparation for Holy Week and for Easter.

+ Donal McKeown

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