20 March 2010
Homily notes of Archbishop Diarmuid Martin for the Fifth Sunday of Lent
We are moving forward on our Lenten journey. Once again on this Sunday the theme of the readings is about mercy. It is about the mercy of God which can:
- mend and restore the sinner;
- allow those whose dignity has been violated to stand once again with their heads held high; and
- and open a future to those who have lost hope.
The call of Lent is a call for all of us to conversion. It is about turning away from what damages our humanity and allowing the healing power of Jesus to enrich us to be fully the people we were created to be.
In our Gospel reading, as Jesus is speaking with the crowd, some experts in the law and some Pharisees drag out before him a woman caught in flagrant adultery. They want to test Jesus by recalling that Moses had said that such a woman should be stoned to death. They want to trap him and put him in contradiction with their interpretation of the Law of God.
The general interpretation of the law at the time of Jesus was in fact much more restrained. It would seem that those who turn to Jesus were from a group which wanted to return to the fullest and most literal application of the entire Law of Moses, in what we would call today a fundamentalist way. And as often with those who bear fundamentalist tendencies, they love to trap and compromise anyone who has even the slightest difference from their view of things.
Jesus says very little. He waits, he writes in the sand. Wisely he does not allow himself to be trapped into answering their loaded question. After a long silence he challenges them: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”
Who is without sin? Most of us are very able in keeping knowledge of our sins to ourselves. We tend indeed to be in denial about our sinfulness. If I were to ask myself “where am I in this story?” I would most probably say that I would hope that I am more like the merciful Jesus. In effect in this Gospel reading we are actually all characterised by the woman caught in flagrant adultery. The sinner caught flagrantly is a symbol for all of us whose sins may be less known; all of us are sinners; all of us are in need of God’s mercy. Jesus alone is the one who is without sin; and thankfully for us all, he is not in the stone throwing business.
Dramatically the accusers move away one after the other, leaving Jesus alone with the sinner; a striking encounter, as Saint Augustine writes, between human misery and God’s mercy. Those who thought that they were the true interpreters of God’s ways have fled taking their barren judgmentalism with them.
On his part, Jesus clearly recognises the sin. The law is necessary to define what is wrong. Jesus does not, however practice a harsh punitive justice; yet neither is his mercy cheap mercy.
The Church in Ireland has for long had a very strong judgemental trait. We were taught a great deal about sins and sins were listed and catalogued. Church leaders, but also indeed individuals and communities, often thought that their own judgmentalism was justified by their representing the anger and the wrath of God.
I believe that to a great degree because of the lack of a real biblical foundation in our faith education, we at times lost contact with the true Christian God. The God revealed in Jesus Christ is above all a merciful God. The fundamentalists and rigorists of today’s Gospel retreat without bringing a single iota of help to the woman. It is only when human misery encounters God’s mercy that the life of the woman changes. She is treated as a person; she is treated as a person who, no matter how she had disgraced herself, could still stand face-to-face with the grace and mercy of God.
Jesus’ logic is different to ours. In the face of sin he does not respond with fundamentalist condemnation; neither does he respond with modern-day liberal toleration. Everything is not right with the woman’s life and behaviour. What Jesus does is to confront the woman face-to-ace and offer he the chance to begin again and sin no more; she goes away then from her unexpected encounter with Jesus as a woman healed, a woman renewed and once again capable of beginning again to live her life to the fullness of its capabilities. Jesus does not wish for destruction, but that the sinner can repent and live.
This afternoon I am pleased that you will have received a copy of Pope Benedict’s Letter to Irish Catholics. It deals with a painful chapter in the life of the Irish Church. It deals with a dramatically painful chapter in the lives of the many who were abused. The Pastoral Letter is not a commentary or guidelines about the management of sexual abuse. It is a much broader reflection of the Pope on the failings of the Church in Ireland and the future of the Church in Ireland. That means that it is a Letter for you and for me; it is a letter for each one of us. With Pope Benedict I appeal to each of you to read the Letter and reflect on it. The Church tragically failed many of its children: it failed through abuse; it failed through not preventing abuse; it failed through covering up abuse.
Child protection measures need to be constantly updated; more participation of lay men and woman is needed to avoid a false culture of clericalism. We need to develop a fresh idea of what childhood means; we need to develop a strong horror of what childhood-lost means.
The Church is called to renew itself in turning back more closely to her founder Jesus Christ. All of us need to learn more deeply how to think like Christ, how to teach like Christ and care as Christ did. We need to realise that the cold harshness of fundamentalism has nothing to do with the demanding starkness of personal and institutional integrity.
Our prayer this evening is that this period of renewal in the Church will be a moment of healing. A precondition of healing is recognition and rejection of the faults of the past, without becoming entrenched and immobilised in history. The truth must come out; without the truth we will never be truly free.
We must face the truth of the past; repent it; make good the damage done. And yet we must move forward day by day along the painful path of renewal, knowing that it is only when our human misery encounters face-to-face the liberating mercy of God that our Church will be truly restored and enriched.