The liturgical readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent are: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126: 1-6; Philippians 3:8-14; and John 8:1-11. You can access the texts of these readings by clicking here.
This Sunday’s Gospel reading of the woman caught in adultery is, ironically, a favorite of those who like to castigate LGBT people. They say that because Jesus says, “Go, and from now on do not sin any more,” that they are justified in telling other people—specifically, LGBT people—how to live their lives.
It seems the rest of the story is lost on them because they think they have found a Scripture text that they can use against others.
In holding onto this one line of Scripture, such people are doing exactly what the scribes and Pharisees in the story have done: isolating one bit of text and, in the process, losing the whole spirit of Scripture’s message that people should not judge one another, but should instead love one another and offer each other mercy.
The gospel writer is clear that their purposes are vengeful, not religious. The author says they brought the woman to Jesus “so that they could have some charge to bring against him.” People use the act of judging not only to bring harm on their targeted victim, but to trap others, as well. Human beings are always way too eager to cast the first stone.
In the gospel story, Jesus’ first response is to write in the dirt. Some commentators say that this action is a message from Jesus—by writing in the dirt, he is telling the accusers that the letter of the law is as transitory as letters written in the sand.
They need to find the law’s deeper message, which is a message of acceptance and mercy.
More importantly, they should look to their own lives to discover sin, not to search for it in other people’s lives. Indeed, this same message, so important to Jesus’ ministry, appeared in the gospel story two weeks ago as well.
Only Christ can tell us to “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” Other human beings don’t have that authority. Christ will speak to us in the depths of our heart, in the privacy of our consciences, when all other judgmental people have disappeared, and when we are alone with Christ.
Only Christ knows whether we have sinned or not. If other people try to point out the sins of others, they fall into the same trap as the scribes and Pharisees in this story. They open themselves up to the same rebuke that Jesus gave them: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
The scribes and the Pharisees in this story can be forgiven for their error because of their ignorance.
They were doing what they had been taught to do. I think of that lesson when I am confronted with church leaders who oppose any sort of progress for LGBT equality. It is not necessarily evil and hatred that motivates them.
Instead, I think, most of the time they are held captive by the narrowness of their own upbringing. That is why we must constantly seek to educate such people. We must continue to tell our stories, even when they don’t want to hear them. We must continue to speak out so that others can learn the deeper messages of God’s Word.
Our job is not to point out whether we think other people have committed a sexual sin, the sin of homophobia, or any kind of sin. Our job is to examine our own lives, recognize our own need for God’s mercy and forgiveness, and to try to offer that same mercy and forgiveness to others.
If we think of ourselves as in this story, we certainly should not picture ourselves as Jesus.
We don’t even need to think of ourselves as the woman. The people that I think many of us most reflect are the scribes and Pharisees—the ones who are too inclined to judge others and to appeal to the authority of the law.
In today’s first reading from Isaiah, God tells us that we need to give up our habitual patterns and our penchant for always doing things the way they have been done for so long. We need to be aware that our old ways of thinking need to be transformed:
Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
see, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
God is always calling us to something new. Isaiah continues with a message that even the situations which seem most hopeless for renewal can, in fact, be renewed by God:
In the desert I make a way,
in the wasteland, rivers.
Wild beasts honor me,
jackals and ostriches,
for I put water in the desert
and rivers in the wasteland. . .
God does not give up on us—ever!
And God does not give up on those who are opposed to LGBT equality—ever!
God is always wanting us to renew ourselves, to examine our lives—not the lives of others—and to be open to “something new.”