Isaiah 43:16 – 21
On the first Sunday of Lent, we heard Moses recall the power of God leading the people to Egypt and then out of Egypt into the Promised Land. On the Second Sunday, we heard of God making a covenant with Abraham, in which he promised him that land. On the Third Sunday, we heard the powerful story of God revealing himself to Moses in the desert, telling Moses that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Last Sunday, we heard Joshua recall the time when the people Israel entered the Promised Land and ate the yield of the land. This Sunday, we hear Isaiah recall the Exodus and then promise something new to the exiles in Babylon.
The passage we hear is part of chapter 43, which speaks of redemption and restoration. Since it is from chapter 43, we know that it is from Deutero-Isaiah, written during the Babylonian exile. Many scripture scholars consider chapters 43 and 44 as Dt-Is’s finest poem. It is beautiful enough in the English translation; it is stunning in the original Hebrew. The section we hear continues a favorite Isaian theme – the new exodus. Notice the references to the original Exodus account as we read this passage – they all lead to the new exodus that the prophet foretells.
16 Thus says the LORD, who opens a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters,
17 Who leads out chariots and horsemen, a powerful army, till they lie prostrate together, never to rise, snuffed out and quenched like a wick.
who opens a way in the sea…a path in the mighty waters… leads out chariots and horsemen… till they lie prostrate: all of these events recall the Exodus from Egypt.
never to rise: the Hebrew speaks in the imperfect, “never to be rising” as if the Egyptians are continuously unable to rise. The next two verbs “snuffed out” and “quenched”, on the other hand, are in the perfect, which speaks of a completed act. This assures the people that God’s action, though performed once, is effective for all time.
18 Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not;
Remember not the events of the past: as great as the exodus from Egypt was, even greater will be the exodus from Babylon. As often as Dt-Is refers to the redemptive acts of the past, here he encourages the people to forget the past in favor of what is happening in the present. In fact, as you will see in the footnote, “God’s new act of delivering Israel from the Babylonian captivity is presented as so great a marvel as to eclipse even the memory of the exodus from Egypt. This comparison of the return from Babylon to the Exodus from Egypt recurs throughout Second Isaiah (cf. 41:17 – 20, 48:21, 51:9 – 10).
19 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.
do you not perceive it: this appears to be a remonstration. It asks, “must you be so blind?”
20 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,
21 The people whom I formed for myself, that they might announce my praise.
The people whom I formed: the LXX reads, “people whom I purchased”; this phrase is found in Acts 20:28.
This prophecy contains a message of hope addressed to the Jewish people who are exiled in Babylon. There will be a new exodus, so glorious that it will overshadow the events of the first exodus. And, all of this will happen because God is faithful and merciful. Thus, this reading prepares us for the Gospel, where the followers of Jesus see a radically new way that God behaves – with compassion and mercy.
John 8: 1 – 11
This Sunday, we will hear John’s account of Jesus’ forgiveness of the woman caught in adultery. The story is taken from John’s Gospel, but it sounds like it should be from Luke. Doesn’t it sound a lot like the Parable of the Prodigal Son that we heard just last week? In fact, most scripture scholars today agree that this passage doesn’t belong to the authentic Gospel of John, based on the vocabulary and style of writing. It’s an entrapment story that shows Jesus’ wisdom as he, whom the Scribes and Pharisees try to entrap, are, in turn entrapped by Jesus’ response. The Scribes and Pharisees thought that if he pardoned the woman, he could be accused of encouraging the people to break the Law of Moses. If he agreed she should be stoned, on the other hand, he would lose credibility in his call for mercy. But, Jesus turns the tables on her accusers by calling them to look at their own sins. Although this story is found in John only, it has corresponding events of attempted entrapment in Mt 22:15 – 22 and Mk 10:2 – 12; let’s read them first.
1 while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
Mount of Olives: as you will see in your footnote, the Mount of Olives is not mentioned elsewhere in the gospel tradition outside of Passion Week. Note Luke 21:37 – 38.
2 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.
3 Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle.
scribes and the Pharisees: ordinarily, the Sanhedrin would handle such a matter, so it is clear that the scribes and Pharisees have a hidden agenda.
4 They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery.
5 Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”
Moses commanded us to stone such women: cf. Lv. 20:10 and Dt 22:22 – 29. While we’re in Deuteronomy, let’s read 17:2-7; we’ll need this in a moment.
what do you say?: It is not clear what Jesus is asked to decide about. Lev. 20:10 and Deut. 22:22 prescribe death, but only Deut. 22:23-24 specifies stoning for a betrothed virgin.
6 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.
They said this to test him,…charge to bring against him: the scribes and Pharisees weren’t interested in deciding a just judgement against the woman, but in finding a way to condemn Jesus. The woman caught in adultery was like the worm on a fisherman’s hook; she was simply the bait. If Jesus decided against the dictates of the law, they could condemn him for disobeying Moses. If he agreed with the apparent judgement they thought the law required, he would be contradicting his constant teaching about mercy.
write on the ground: In the Revised Standard Version of Jeremiah 17:13 we read: “Those who turn away from thee shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken thee, the fountain of living water” (cf. Jn. 7:38). This is the only passage in the Gospels in which Jesus is depicted as writing anything. Consequently, it has been the cause of a great deal of speculation. A tradition dating back to the time of St. Jerome proposes that Jesus was listing the sins of the accusers. Others think that Jesus was imitating Roman legal practice, where the judge wrote down the sentence before declaring it aloud. Some propose that Jesus was inspired by Daniel 5:24 and the mysterious writing on the wall that provided divine commentary on the situation. Or, perhaps, Jesus was reminding everyone that the law came from the finger of God (Dt. 31:18). Probably the author meant no more than that Jesus idly traced his finger in the sand to indicate his lack of interest in the activity around him.
7 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.”
the first to throw a stone at her: As we read earlier in Deuteronomy 17:7, the witnesses were to throw the first stones. Jesus challenges the witnesses and other accusers to consider first whether their own conscience proclaims them worthy to sit in judgment.
8 Again he bent down and wrote on the ground.
9 And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him.
they went away one by one, beginning with the elders: realizing the lesson of Jesus’ response and perhaps embarrassed about having tried to use the woman to ensnare Jesus, the scribes and Pharisees depart.
10 Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
11 She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, (and) from now on do not sin any more.”
The lesson of the story is, of course, not that sin is of no importance nor that God does not despise sin, but that God extends mercy to the sinner that he may turn from sin. It is also that we should leave such judgement up to God; only he is perfect and in a position to make judgement. The image of the sinner and the Sinless standing face-to-face exemplifies the call to repentance. In his commentary about this passage, St. Augustine wrote that, at the end of the story, only two were left: misery and mercy. It is a powerful example of the mercy of God. Though Jesus himself does not judge (8:15), it is nevertheless for judgment that he has come into the world (9:39).
Philippians 3:8 – 14
This week, we hear from Paul’s letter to the community in Philippi.
8 More than that, I even 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
knowing Christ Jesus my Lord: coming to know Jesus on the road to Damascus initiated a relationship that far surpassed anything he previously had known. This relationship is spelled out in v. 10.
that I may gain Christ: his knowledge of Christ is more than just intellectual, but speaks of a communion with Christ.
9 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
not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ: Paul’s right relationship with God is not based on following the 613 prescriptions of the Mosaic law but comes from God which he receives in faith.
10 to know him and the power of his resurrection and (the) sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death,
11 if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
12 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).
Attained perfect maturity: possibly an echo of the concept in the mystery religions of being an initiate, admitted to divine secrets.
To be taken possession of by Christ: does not mean that one has already arrived at perfect spiritual maturity. Paul and the Philippians instead press on, trusting in God.
13 Brothers, 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,
14 I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.
God’s upward calling: the destiny of the Christian, who is called to share a life with Christ in glory.
This Sunday, we are invited to contemplate Jesus as the embodiment and sign of God who is ever bringing about something new. His mercy is abundant and we who have been taken possession of by Christ are called to be signs of his mercy until the day that he comes as our judge. Then, we will be dependent on his mercy for we are all sinners who long to be redeemed.