Here we are already at the Fifth Sunday of Lent. And today’s Gospel reading for Mass is the most striking story of the woman caught in adultery. If we stand at Jesus’ side, if we feel into how he meets this situation, a situation in which he is being put to the test by the upholders of the law, what do we learn, what do we witness? Jesus meets the testing of the scribes and Pharisees by bending down into the silence…there he waits in the silence…then the Spirit breathes into him words that unmask the self-righteous hypocrisy of these so called upholders of God’s law: ‘Whoever has not sinned’, Jesus says, ‘throw the first stone’. Again, he bends down into the silence and one by one they go away. Then he is left alone with the woman. He straightens up and says to her: ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? Neither do I condemn you…go and do not commit sin again’.
If we stand at the side of these upholders of the law, and then do the same with the woman caught in adultery what is Jesus inviting both to do, although their existential situation is different: one group is accusing the woman of sin and they are ready to stone her (mercy is absent from their hearts) and the woman who is accused, indeed has sinned, she is fearful, lost. It seems to me that Jesus’ challenge to both is one of ‘repentance’. Repentance is radical. It invites us to a change of mind and heart, to a return to God, to turn one’s whole life around in order to live with the heart of God. It is about a change in consciousness, an expansion of consciousness; it means ‘to think differently’ following an encounter of conflict such as this gospel story. I think we have a sense that the woman will turn around her life, but for the scribes and Pharisees it is less clear. Perhaps it is more difficult for them to change such an entrenched attitude of ‘self-righteousness’. The danger of this ‘self-righteous’ attitude is that we are so caught in it that we do not look inward at our selves. We are right and thus defensive of our position and way of seeing. This attitude tends toward inflation, we become inflated when we do not face the hardness, the rigid, hard-core perceptions that grip us: ‘Look at me Lord, I am not a sinner like this person over here who has done this or that’. The self-righteous attitude excludes any movement of mercy or compassion.
To have a real, a true turning: the heart does need to be broken open, to be softened, to become less hard…only then can we break down the hardness of our self-righteousness, and begin to feel mercy towards the other….and see the other more like God does. Pope Francis, in his message for the World Day of Peace, at the beginning of this year, wrote: “Mercy is the heart of God” (p.5). This says it all, does it not? He goes on to say this: “We…are called to make compassion, love, mercy and solidarity a true way of life, a rule of conduct in our relationships with one another. This requires a conversion of our hearts: the grace of God has to turn our hearts of stone into hearts of flesh, open to others in authentic solidarity” (p.5). ‘Solidarity’ means, says Pope Francis, not just a superficial feeling towards another, but a real, active commitment to the other with the awareness that we are all responsible for one another and then ‘compassion flows from fraternity’ (p.5), from this bond one to another.We are offered on this 5th Sunday of Lent an image of God that our world in general desperately is in need of: ‘Whoever has not sinned throw the first stone.’ ‘Woman, has anyone condemned you? Neither do I condemn you.’ Mercy is leading…forgiveness reaches out in an embrace. There is no condemnation; there is an embrace of mercy. The mission of a monastic community is to embody this face of Christ: mercy, forgiveness not condemnation. We have the witness of our brothers of Atlas who embodied as a community the merciful face of God. They were a community armed with forgiveness, and ready to disarm their hearts so that God’s mercy may overflow to those who would potentially strike them down. With so much violence raging in the world today, we in our small monastic cell can contribute to a change as we lay down the hurtful, condemning word, as we let go of our self-righteousness that keeps our hearts closed to the mercy of God, closed to the need of a brother or sister, for it is mercy alone, which converts our hardened hearts to become more like that of Jesus.
We are graced with mercy as we turn our lives around, in repentance, towards the source of Mercy. REPENTANCE gives us a heart…a new heart, a heart of mercy.