Now with the fifth Sunday of our Lenten pilgrimage at hand, the goal of the journey approaches even closer. Today we are bidden by the word of God to consider what lies ahead, not in the past, to fix our eyes on the prize. The great mystery of salvation is about to unfold. But the temptation to look away, to rest our tired eyes and minds like the Disciples of Jesus on the mountain of Transfiguration or in the Garden of Gethsemane, or just to look back, remains great.
We are quickly, perhaps too easily distracted by the events of the day, whether terrible and disheartening such as the conflict in Ukraine or trivial episodes such as the fracas at the Oscar Awards, which has received at least as much attention in the news outlets this week. Wages, prices and the inflationary spiral grab notice as such things do periodically. Political engines are roaring more ominously than usual. The brackets of “March Madness” are captivating. Sudden and violent shifts in weather concern us for the moment, appropriately enough as have so easily forgotten the climate changes we continue to create by our wasteful misuse of the earth’s bounty. It is not easy in the midst of the clamor to focus on something so familiar as Easter.
The readings for today may seem oddly disparate in that regard, except for a significant theme that appears in each, call it a reminder.
In the first reading, the prophet Isaiah recalls the generous mercy of God, who prepared a path in the mighty waters of the sea for the people, an invocation of the Exodus. He insists, however,
“Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not.
See, I am doing something new!” [Isaiah 43:18-19].
Look ahead, not behind.
In his letter to the Christians at Philippi, Paul describes the urgency which impels him to devote all his energy to the preaching of the Gospel, spurred ever onward by his faith in the Resurrection and eager to conform himself ever more closely to the pattern of Jesus’ life and death. “Thus do I hope that I may arrive at resurrection from the dead” [Phil. 3:10-11].
Like Isaiah, Pauls’ gaze is riveted on what lies ahead, not the events of the past: “I give no thought to what lies behind but push on to what lies ahead” [Phil. 3:13-14].
At first glance, the story from John’s gospel seems less focused on the theme we see in the readings from Isaiah and St. Paul. It is one of the significant accounts that center on Jesus’ relation with seven remarkable women. It prefaces a much longer and crucial passage from Jesus’ instruction in the Temple, which ends with his denunciation by the Pharisees and Scribes and an attempt to stone him as they would have the woman “caught in adultery” [John 8:58].
The hypocrisy of her accusers is portrayed in dramatic fashion, but it is what occurs after her accusers slink away in shame and confusion that connects this passage to those of the other readings. Apparently, the woman had a reputation as a sinner, possibly being a prostitute but clearly one involved in adultery. The penalty is listed in Leviticus 20:10, which stipulates that both parties were liable to suffer death, although stoning, the usual method of execution, is not mentioned. What seems evident in this case is that the other party, the male, has been let off, perhaps by paying a penalty price, which seems to have been possible for those with the means. That much hasn’t changed greatly in the modern world, usually abetted by well-paid law firms.
The woman is only a pawn. Jesus perceives that a trap has been set but he evades it by exposing the hypocrisy of the leaders of the crowd, leaving only himself and the woman cowering at his feet. But far from condemning or even chastising her for her sin, he bids her to go forward, to look toward a future made possible by mercy and forgiveness. “Go, and sin no more.” Prior to this caution, what he says is even more important for us as Lent draws to its climax: “Neither do I condemn you.”
That surely is the message of Lent as we approach the Feast of the Resurrection. What else could repentance be about?