Woman caught in adultery, John Martin Borg (c.1954– )

Fr Neil’s homily for Passion Sunday, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, 3 April 2022

Remember not the former things…Behold I am doing a new thing.

In our first reading¹ we hear Isaiah’s words addressed to the people of Israel, while they were experiencing their darkest days.

The Exodus marked their liberty from the bondage of slavery, formed them into a nation and established them, by covenant, as the people of God. It would be no surprise that while they were under a new bondage in exile they look to the past.

It is somewhat surprising to hear Isaiah telling God’s people to “remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old.” They are to look to what God is doing now not what he did in the past. “Behold I am doing a new thing…I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert.” Through Isaiah, God declares that he will establish a new Exodus for his people.

This raises some interesting themes about our relationship to our ‘back stories’ and historical events in general. Knowing our history is vital. Without it we will never truly understand what makes us who we are in the present. History teaches us a great deal and enlightens with wisdom the ongoing decisions we make day to day.

The Exodus shaped the identity of a nation and could not be forgotten without their losing the real sense of who they were. Yet it is also easy to be stuck in the past. We can either be overwhelmed by the events that shaped us, to the point that we cannot escape the emotional turmoil of the past — or gaze back with rose tinted spectacles longing for the carefree days of past years.

We can never go back to put right the things that were wrong or to recreate the days of untroubled bliss. The past is not to put us into emotional and spiritual paralysis but to equip us to find the way of life in the present.

The first Exodus was meant to not only to shape a nation’s identity but also to prepare them for the new and even greater exodus that God was putting into place. Knowing the past, provided they were not in thrall to it, would enable them to see the signs and read the language of the movement of God in the present.

This new Exodus wasn’t to be their return from Exile. Instead it was to be found in the person and ministry of Christ that culminated in the passion that we will celebrate this coming Holy Week. Christ is the living water creating streams in the desert, and flowing from his pieced side is the wellspring of the sacraments of the Church.

The glory of the first exodus pales into insignificance in the light of the salvation won for all God’s people in the Passion of Christ. It is why Paul is able to “count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.”²

We see something of this being played out in Christ’s encounter with the woman caught in adultery³. The woman is brought before Christ by his enemies as a means of trying to trap and entangle him so that they might find a reason to condemn him. The woman doesn’t deny her sin; it is not hidden but has been put on public display. The law states that she should be stoned. Christ doesn’t deny the commandment. Rather he starts writing on the ground, and much speculation has gone into what he was writing. It may well be that he wrote out the Decalogue, the Ten Commandments and in so doing led a sort of examination of conscience. “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.”

To give the crowd their due they all slowly melted away, beginning with the wisest among them. In their actions they realised that all have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory. The woman is left facing Christ alone. He is the only one who could with right judgment condemn her sinful actions. To look Christ in the eyes when our sins are as scarlet before him is no easy thing to do. There is no hiding place. Is it not one of the reasons why the confessional is often so poorly used?

Although we are not privy to it there must have been proper contrition on behalf of the woman. Adultery is a serious sin that creates waves of devastation for the partners, children, wider family and community. One has to live with the consequence of our actions here and in purgatory. Sin is a past action that shapes our lives in the present.

Yet when no one is found to condemn the woman Christ states these most beautiful words; “neither do I condemn you.” This echoes his early words that “God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him.”⁴

The woman’s adultery and its consequences cannot be undone but she is not to be held captive to it. Absolution frees the sinner from being bound to the faults of the past alone and opens a way to a renewed future. A key to embracing that new future is our Lord’s final words to the woman: “Go and do not sin again.”

A choice is given at this moment to either go back to old habits, and wallow in the pains and bondage of the past, or take the opportunity given and enter the new exodus, walking the way of life with Christ. The choice of life is why Paul so passionately proclaims that “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things, and count them as refuse, in order that I may gain Christ.”⁵ And “I press on towards the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.”⁶

Given that choice, I wonder which we will choose?

¹ Isaiah 43:16–21
² Philippians 3:8
³ John 8:1–11
⁴ John 3:17
⁵ Philippians 3:9
⁶ Philippians 3:14

The editorial title comes from Newman’s hymn Lead, kindly Light.