Fifth Sunday of Lent. Fr Timothy Radcliffe preaches on two kinds of human solidarity.
One of our deepest needs is to be at home. We need a place in which we may flourish and be ourselves. All of today’s readings show us how we may find that home in God. St Paul says in the second reading:
I look on everything as rubbish if only I can have Christ and be given a place in him.
Isaiah is addressing the Israelites who are literally far from their home, in Babylon. They were exiled because of their sins, and now God has withdrawn his accusation and so they may come back to Jerusalem. God will build a road home, a sort of M1, with a flat surface and oases, like service stations, on the way.
The gospel tells us of an even more radical homecoming. The woman is not only forgiven; Jesus bears the accusation. We can all be at home in Christ, because he taken upon himself all the accusations that human beings make against each other.
The sin of which she is accused, adultery, is profoundly destructive of the home. It strikes at the communion of husband and wife that should be the heart of every household. So this damage must be repaired.
The reaction of the scribes and the Pharisees shows one way in which we try to do this. They place the woman in the middle to accuse her. This is a common way for human communities to try to heal divisions. We find someone who is to blame, and get rid of them.
We are gathered together in our shared anger against the accused: immigrants, foreigners, sinners. If we chuck them out, then we shall be at home again. Of course it does not work, and soon we shall need other scapegoats. The violence is without end.
Paradoxically the crowd is unknowingly helping God achieve his plan. They place woman along beside Jesus. That is exactly where Jesus wished to be, beside the sinner. They bring her to her saviour.
Of course the scribes and the Pharisees really want to accuse Jesus. The woman is just a tool. If he says that the woman ought not to be stoned, then he is against the Law; if he says that she ought to be stoned, then he is against the Romans, who had withdrawn the right of the Jewish authorities to impose the capital punishment.
If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.
It is a brilliant way out of the trap. But it is more than that. It breaks up the mob that has been focused on the woman caught in sin. It subverts the wrong sort of being together.
Jesus does not minimize the woman’s sin. She has undermined the community and this must be healed. We do not do this by heaping on condemnation but by drawing near to the woman in a new solidarity. We are all people who break up the community in different ways. It may not be through adultery, but through malice, hardness of heart, untruthfulness, and the refusal to forgive. We heal the wounded human community by finding ourselves close to her.
The Desert Fathers tell the story of a brother who had committed a fault.
So they called a meeting and invited Abba Moses. He refused to go. The priest sent someone to say to him, “They are all waiting for you.” So Moses got up and set off; he took a leaky jug and filled it with water and took it with him. The others came out to meet him and said, “What is this, Father?” The old man said to them, “My sins run out behind me and I cannot see them, yet here I am coming to sit in judgment on the mistakes of somebody else.” When they heard this, they called off the meeting.
God wishes to gather us from exile into our home. If we wish to accept his invitation, then we must dare to join the accused woman at the centre of the circle, because that is where Jesus is to be found.