Jesus brings the focus back on his infinite, merciful love

By: By Msgr. Stuart Swetland

Fifth Sunday of Lent, March 17

Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126:1-2,2-3,4-5,6; Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11

Imagine you are surrounded by a hostile crowd, leering and hate-filled. Your worst sins have been uncovered and all are aware of your shame. Not only that, but the crowd literally wants you dead. In addition, some of the most influential in the crowd (well-connected social, political, and religious leaders), wish to use you as a trap for someone else they desire to see destroyed — a popular street preacher and teacher.

All eyes are on you until a most bizarre and amazing thing happens: the teacher, refusing to answer the challenge and questions from the crowd, bends over and begins to “doodle” in the dirt. Why would the Lord and Master do this? What is He writing? While all of this is unclear, one thing is certain: no one is looking at you anymore, all the focus and attention is now on the Master.

And this is the key point in today’s Gospel! Jesus has taken the focus off the sinner and the sin and on to Himself. He who did not know sin took on Himself “the curse of sin” for our sakes. (cf. Galatians 3:13)

After re-focusing the crowd, Jesus further defuses the situation by pointing out their hypocrisy. “He who is without sin, cast the first stone.” (Some later manuscripts and many commentators have added that Jesus did not just continue “doodling” now, but wrote out the sins of each of them.) Recognizing that they had been unmasked, each person starts to leave beginning with the eldest.

Now without any accusers, Jesus can pronounce His re-creative words: “Nor do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” (John 8:11)

Is this not our experience in confession? We often go to confession so focused on ourselves and our sins. But the sacraments are ultimately not about us, but about Jesus and His merciful love.

On one level, our sins do not really matter that much. In fact, they are our “passports” into the presence of the merciful Lord. He who has no sin does not need Jesus. But we all need Jesus and His merciful love. (cf. 1 John 1:8-10)

Obviously we should recognize the seriousness of sin. The cross, after all, is a sign of its deadly consequences. But it is very little compared to the infinite, merciful love of our Savior and Redeemer. “For our sake, He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in Him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Corinthians 5:21)

We are now entering into our final preparation for the Easter season. We hope to celebrate the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus with minds and hearts renewed. One of the best preparations is to seek the Lord in the sacrament of reconciliation. He is waiting for us there. He wishes to make us the very “righteousness of God” by conforming us to Himself. (cf. Philippians 3:8-14)

Jesus wishes us to truly know Him and in Him to discover our true selves. (cf. “Gaudium et Spes” 22) Jesus longs to make us “other Christs,” true Christians, carrying on His mission in our world today — a people as God says through the prophet Isaiah in today’s first reading “whom I formed for myself, that they might announce my praise.” (Isaiah 43:31)

Holy Week is the high point of our liturgical year. It is the time for us to make or renew our baptismal promises. It is our supreme opportunity to sing God’s praise — to return to Him with our whole heart and mind, our very selves — to experience (again) His grace and mercy and salvation.

MSGR. STUART Swetland, a priest of the Diocese of Peoria, is the Most Rev. Harry J. Flynn Professor of Christian Ethics at Mount St. Mary University in Emmitsburg, Md., and director of the Center for the Advancement of Catholic Higher Education.

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