FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT – YEAR C
The Gospels are filled with accounts of men, women, and children to whom Jesus ministers. He heals, casts out unclean spirits, grants forgiveness, even raises from the dead. It is interesting to note how many of those gracious acts on the part of our Savior were facilitated by people other than the ones who needed help. The paralyzed man, for example, had no way to get to Jesus. Even with the assistance of the men who carried him, he found his way blocked by the crowd. So his friends went an extra yard, so to speak, by carrying him up to the roof of the house where Jesus was, and lowering him by ropes almost right into Jesus’ lap. Thanks to their efforts, the man went away with a double blessing: his sins forgiven as well as his limbs restored. The crowd surrounding Bartimaeus, the blind beggar, encouraged him as he cried out to Jesus, “Get up. He is calling you. You have nothing at all to fear.” The Roman centurion, whom Jesus hailed as having the greatest faith he had encountered in Israel, relied on his Jewish friends to approach the Master and beg for help. “He is worthy to have you do this for him,” they testified to Jesus, “for he loves our people, and has even built our synagogue for us.” Martha, the sister of the recently deceased Lazarus, ran from the house of mourning to confess to Jesus, “Even now I know that God will do whatever you ask of Him.”
Today we hear of the one and only instance in which people brought someone to Jesus, not with a view of invoking his mercy, but out of sheer malice. “Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery.” What a horrendous act of shaming. A woman torn from the arms of her lover, perhaps not even fully clothed, is made to stand in the middle of a group of men in the temple area. And all of this is done, not with the woman’s plight in mind, but with a view to using her as a pawn in their quarrels with Jesus about his way of interpreting and applying the Torah, the Law of Moses. If Jesus falls into the trap they have set, they win by showing him up as an imposter who distorts and even contradicts the revealed command of God. But, even if they lose and Jesus insists on the prescription of the Law, they still win by making this humiliated woman a scapegoat who confirms them in their self-righteousness.
Jesus, rabbi that he was, knew exactly how to defuse the situation. His response accomplished three things. It rescued the woman from stoning, pointed out how God’s will can be accomplished most effectively only by those whose hearts are humble with self-knowledge, and persuaded the accusers to take the first step toward genuine holiness. Then he turned his attention to the woman; and, with the utmost sensitivity, gave her back her self-respect. It is frustrating that we are told nothing of what happened to the woman after this painful episode, but I cannot help but think that she became a disciple.
In the Second Reading today St. Paul recounts to the Philippians his struggle to gain Christ and be found in him. Using the metaphor of a sporting event, Paul talks about how he strains forward toward the goal of taking full possession of the prize of God’s upward calling in Christ Jesus.
Lent is our yearly reminder that the spiritual life does not come naturally; it does not just happen. Maturity in Christ, as Paul terms it, demands a strict discipline. Not all believers find themselves accepting the loss of all things, as Paul did at his conversion, but we are in training like athletes in pursuit of excellence. There is a growing practice among Catholics of sacrificing time during Lent for volunteer activity rather than just foregoing the small pleasures of food or drink. Jesuit Father James Martin refers to the trend as “Social Justice Lent.”
A Social Justice Lent disposes us to shine forth more brightly as guides and helpers who assist our brothers and sisters to come to Jesus to be healed or forgiven, or befriended or encouraged, or even to be called by him to a special role of service.
Today is an opportunity for us to reflect on the people who have assisted and inspired us on our spiritual journey, with profound thanksgiving for their help. They have been sent to us as special angels whose names will live forever in our hearts. It is also a day to remember that we still have time before Easter to bring ourselves to Jesus in the Sacrament of Reconciliation if our conscience is burdened. We will receive a gentle welcome rather than a session of shaming. And as we listen to God saying through the prophet Isaiah, “See I am doing something new…In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers…,” we ask him to give us the grace to guide others along that way to the rivers of mercy and peace that flow from the heart of our Savior, Jesus Christ.