Scripture and the Liturgy

Jesus and the New Exodus: 5th Sunday of Lent

Like these commentaries? You can get them in book form here. The volume on the date-fixed Solemnities and Feasts is here. You will also love the weekly half-hour dialogues on the Readings between myself and Dr. Scott Hahn, available here.

Lent is drawing to a close.  This week we celebrate the last Sunday of Lent before the beginning of Passion Week.  This Sunday is period of “quiet” between Laetare Sunday and Passion/Palm Sunday, our last opportunity to meditate on the ‘ordinary’ struggle of Lent before the intensity of the events in the last week of Our Lord’s life.  Let’s use it well!

The Readings for this week focus on the theme of a “New Exodus.”  Just as Moses was a savior figure who lead Israel to freedom through the Red Sea, so Jesus leads us to freedom through the waters of Baptism.  Let’s see how this theme plays out:

1.  Our First Reading is Isaiah 43:16-21:

Thus says the LORD,

who opens a way in the sea

and a path in the mighty waters,

who leads out chariots and horsemen,

a powerful army,

till they lie prostrate together, never to rise,

snuffed out and quenched like a wick.

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?

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

for my chosen people to drink,

the people whom I formed for myself,

that they might announce my praise.

In the course of Lent during this Year C, we have made a review of the story of the salvation of the people of Israel from the patriarchs to the promised land, reading key texts to remind ourselves of pivotal points in the saga.  So we began with Deuteronomy 26:4-10, in which the Israelite worshiper recited the story of this people from the time of Jacob to the settlement of the land of Israel.  Then Genesis 15 reminded us of God’s covenant with Abraham which included the promise of the Exodus and the possession of the land.  Exodus 3 called to mind God’s choosing of Moses and commissioning him to bring the people out of Egypt.  Finally, Joshua 5:9-12 gave us a snapshot of the people of Israel having arrived in the land, as promised, and eating of its good fruits. 

Now todays reading presents us with the prophet Isaiah, speaking at least 500 years or more after the settlement of the land.  On behalf of God, he calls to mind the Exodus, when God “opened a way in the sea” and “snuffed out” the “powerful army” of Pharaoh.  But then he says: “Do you remember that?  Good!  Well, now forget about it!”

Remember not the events of the past,

the things of long ago consider not;

see, I am doing something new!

God is going to initiate a “New Exodus,” in which his chosen people will be feed and watered in the “desert” and the “wasteland.”  Even the “wild beasts, jackals, and ostriches” will honor God at this time.

What is all this referring to?  Key to understanding the fulfillment is remembering certain texts from the Gospels, like John the Baptist in John 1:23: “I am the voice of one crying, ‘In the wilderness make straight the way of the LORD’”—just as our text reads, “In the desert I make a way.”  We should also remember the account of the transfiguration in Luke 9:31, when Jesus discusses his upcoming “exodus” with Moses and Elijah.  These and other texts make the connection between Isaiah’s promised “New Exodus” and the mission of Jesus. 

Both the “wilderness” (see Exekiel 20:35) and the “wild beasts” (see Acts 9, esp. vv. 9-29) are associated with the Gentile nations in Scripture, and “water” is an image of God’s Spirit (see Isaiah 44:3).  So Isaiah’s prophecy of water being provided in the wilderness for God’s people among wild beasts may be understood as a promise that God will pour out his Spirit among all the nations and form for himself a people from those who dwell among the Gentiles.  The outpouring of the Holy Spirit is the goal of Jesus’ mission: we see it beginning in John 20:22-23 and continuing through Acts 2 and especially Acts 9, where the Spirit falls on uncircumcised Gentiles (‘wild beasts’) and God begins to form a people for himself from these same Gentiles. 

P.  Our Responsorial Psalm is Psalm 126:

R. (3) The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.

When the LORD brought back the captives of Zion,

we were like men dreaming.

Then our mouth was filled with laughter,

and our tongue with rejoicing.

R. The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.

Then they said among the nations,

“The LORD has done great things for them.”

The LORD has done great things for us;

we are glad indeed.

R. The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, O LORD,

like the torrents in the southern desert.

Those that sow in tears

shall reap rejoicing.

R. The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.

Although they go forth weeping,

carrying the seed to be sown,

They shall come back rejoicing,

carrying their sheaves.

R. The Lord has done great things for us; we are filled with joy.

Psalm 126 is clearly a post-exilic psalm, one sung by the people of Judah after they had returned from exile to Babylon.  It reflects the great hope and joy of this time period, when the Judeans experienced something about which they had all but given up hope: their restoration to their land and city (Jerusalem).  The joy of this time is a foretaste of the joy we experience now, having experienced the fulfillment of Isaiah’s promise in the First Reading.  We, at least most of us, are the “wild beasts” and the “wilderness” that God has transformed through the outpouring of his Spirit.  We have been lead out of slavery to sin into the freedom of being children of God.

2.  Our Second Reading is from Philippians 3:8-14:

Brothers and sisters:

I consider everything as a loss

because of the supreme good of knowing
Christ Jesus my Lord.

For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things

and I consider them so much rubbish,

that I may gain Christ and be found in him,

not having any righteousness of my own based on the law

but that which comes through faith in Christ,

the righteousness from God,

depending on faith to know him
and the power of his resurrection

and the sharing of his sufferings
by being conformed to his death,

if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

It is not that I have already taken hold of it

or have already attained perfect maturity,

but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it,

since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus.

Brothers and sisters, I for my part

do not consider myself to have taken possession.

Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind

but straining forward to what lies ahead,

I continue my pursuit toward the goal,

the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.

As we journey through Lent and try to intensify our relationship with God through Jesus Christ, this Second Reading serves as an encouragement for all those who are sincerely trying—by prayer, fasting, and almsgiving—to grow in holiness.  For those who are not trying, of course, this reading will fall on deaf ears.  But for the sincere, Paul’s words are a comfort:

forgetting what lies behind

but straining forward to what lies ahead,

I continue my pursuit toward the goal … Christ Jesus.

A greater experience of Jesus Christ at the celebration of Easter is the goal of our Lenten journey. 

Notice the similarity with the First Reading, which exhorted “Remember not the things of the past!” and Paul who says, “Forgetting what lies behind!”  We can understand the spiritual sense of these texts as urging us to forget any failures of our Lenten mortifications and resolutions, and to renew our commitments to prayer and self-sacrifice in the short time that remains. 

St. Paul also reminds us of the difference between the Old Covenant and the New Covenant, referred to here as “the Law” and “Faith.”  St. Paul says he has no “righteousness of my own based on the law,” but instead he desires “the righteousness of God.”

The “righteousness of God” is a supernatural property, and ultimately it cannot be disconnected from the gift of the Holy Spirit.  The Holy Spirit, which we receive and is renewed in us through the sacraments received with an attitude of faith, communicates divine attributes to us.  The Spirit gives us a righteousness that is beyond merely human capabilities.  This was the problem with the Old Covenant and the Law.  The Law was well and good as far as it went—but it did not give us supernatural power, it only instructed us in what is right to do.  The New Covenant communicates to us God’s presence and power in our lives.  But, there is a mystery involved in this: how much effect this divine power and presence has in our lives does depend on our cooperation.  That is why Paul says, “I have not already attained perfect maturity, but I continue in my pursuit ….”  God does not save us without our cooperation.  We need to receive, embrace, and respond to the gift of God’s righteousness in the Holy Spirit.

3.  The Gospel is John 8:1-11:

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.

But early in the morning
he arrived again in the temple area,

and all the people started coming to him,

and he sat down and taught them.

Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman

who had been caught in adultery

and made her stand in the middle.

They said to him,

“Teacher, this woman was caught

in the very act of committing adultery.

Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.

So what do you say?”

They said this to test him,

so that they could have some charge to bring against him.

Jesus bent down
and began to write on the ground with his finger.

But when they continued asking him,

he straightened up and said to them,

“Let the one among you who is without sin

be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Again he bent down and wrote on the ground.

And in response, they went away one by one,

beginning with the elders.

So he was left alone with the woman before him.

Then Jesus straightened up and said to her,

“Woman, where are they?

Has no one condemned you?”

She replied, “No one, sir.”

Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.

Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

The scribes and the Pharisees have contrived this whole event as a political trap for Jesus.  We notice immediately that there is something fishy about the events, because they bring this woman “caught in the act,” but the man involved is nowhere to be found, even though the Law of Moses would hold him equally responsible.  Where is the man if they caught the woman “in the act”?  Possibly this woman is just a paid actor, although we just don’t know.

In any event, this is the nature of the trap: If Jesus responds by telling the scribes and the Pharisees that they should stone the woman, the scribes and Pharisees will immediately run to the Roman authorities and report Jesus as advocating rebellion against the Roman government and its laws, since the Roman government had reserved to itself alone the authority to apply capital punishment.  No other group or persons in the empire had the power of execution, and to advocate or attempt the execution of someone apart from Roman authorization would be interpreted as an act of sedition.

On the other hand, if Jesus responds by telling the scribes and Pharisees not to execute the woman, they will report to the people, “This man Jesus is no true prophet because he defies the Law of Moses!”  Thus, they will succeed either in getting Jesus arrested or else discrediting him in the eyes of pious Jews. 

Jesus knows this is a trap, so he refuses to respond.  When they keep pressing him, he offers this suggestion: “Let him who is without sin throw the first stone.”

By saying this, Jesus puts the responsibility for the woman’s execution squarely on the shoulders of the scribes and Pharisees.  They certainly do think that they themselves are without sin, but they do not dare take up a stone to throw at the woman, because they would be immediately arrested by the Roman soldiers who were keeping an eye on the Temple courts from the massive, adjacent Antonian fortress.  The whole proceedings were probably being watched by soldiers from the parapets of this fortress, which Rome had built precisely for keeping peace at this most volatile area of Jerusalem. 

So now Jesus has turned the trap on the Pharisees.  If they throw stones, they will be arrested by the Romans.  If they don’t throw stones, they will appear to be admitting that they have sin.  In the end, they choose the shame of being outwitted in public rather than arrest, torture, and incarceration by the Roman authorities.  The oldest and wisest are the first to figure out that Jesus has outwitted them; the youngest and foolish keep hanging around, hoping there is some way out of their “checkmate.”  Do not think for a moment that their decision not to throw stones was actually some kind of sincere conviction in their hearts that they truly were sinners in need of forgiveness!  Certainly not!  They just didn’t want to be arrested. 

When they all have left, Jesus asks, “Has no one condemned you?”  And she responds, “No one, Lord.”  None of her accusers had been willing to sustain the accusation; therefore, from a legal perspective, there were no longer any plaintiffs.  And how can a judge condemn a defendant if there are no plaintiffs?  So Jesus says, “Then neither do I condemn you.  Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

If the woman had really committed adultery, then Jesus exhorts her to do so no longer.  But even if she was a paid actor, it was a sin to cooperate with the Pharisees in the effort to entrap an innocent man.  And she needs to repent of that sin. 

In none of this does Jesus relax in the least his teaching on sexual purity.  Jesus has the highest standards of sexual propriety, forbidding not just adultery but even the internal lust that is the seed of adultery (5:28-30), and that if necessary we should be willing even to maim ourselves if such will free us from sin.  So in Our Lord we see the paradox of unyielding teaching about the way of holiness combined with an inexhaustible willingness to forgive, heal, and restore (Matt 18:22). 

In the context of this Mass, this Gospel reading gives comfort to those many of us who have botched or messed up our Lenten practices, or even abandoned them and gone back to a self-indulgent lifestyle in small or large ways.  The Lord is ever forgiving.  He does not condemn but encourages us to “go and sin no more.”  Yet he does not lie to us by telling us we can attain eternal life while indulging in sin.  The Lord never tells us an untruth.  Since salvation is by definition an “exodus” or freedom from sin, we cannot be “saved” while we are still “sinning.”  Sin is what we are saved from.  As Pope Francis has often said, he does not tire of forgiving, but we tire of repenting! 

Leave a Reply