I was just coming to write my Sunday post (a day late), and find news of Notre Dame.
I am devastated.
It was my favorite church, from three trips to Paris. It was exquisite, the central, perfect monument of such a rich age.
I can only think of Lamentations. In the old office of Tenebrae, “Shadows,” sung during Holy Week, we invoke the desolation of Jerusalem at the Babylon exile. Quomodo sedet sola civitas: as the city sits alone.
The devastation of Jerusalem, the devastation of the Cross. It’s so easy to skip to the next step, to shrug and say, yes, but in three days he will rebuild this Temple. But in his valley of tears, so many Temples will never be rebuilt.
Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126;
Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11
last Sunday before Holy Week, unless for RCIA you’re reading the Raising of
Lazarus, this year’s Lectionary gives us John’s telling of the Woman Caught in
Adultery. The theme is second chances.
That theme begins with Isaiah 43. There’s a major turn in Isaiah at chapter 40—modern scholars wonder whether the “First Isaiah” wrote as Jerusalem was being attacked by the Babylonians, and the “Second Isaiah” wrote as they were coming back from Babylon, and even Thomas Aquinas begins his commentary by saying clearly this book has two halves. Let’s just say that the first half is prophecies of woe, and the second half is prophecies of hope.
reading says the God, “who leads out chariots and horsemen, a powerful
army”—like the army that “First Isaiah” says God sent to destroy sinful
Jerusalem—is later “doing something new.”
That newness, “In the desert I make a way,” sounds to me more like a recollection
of how he got his people out of Egypt, and less like the specifics of how they
came back from Babylon. (That route is
actually up the beautiful Euphrates, until you’re north of Palestine, and then
south through the beauties of Syria and Lebanon.) But the point is, he always saves his people.
reading of Philippians turns that newness inside out. It’s not that he brings us “back” to earthly
splendor, but that he pulls us forward: “forgetting what lies behind but straining
forward to what lies ahead.” We count what lies behind “so much rubbish,” but
look forward to being transformed in righteousness “through faith in
Christ.” But still, it’s a second
chance, a path out of the desert. God
does not abandon his people.
obvious theme of the Woman Caught in Adultery: instead of stoning her, he says,
“go and sin no more.”
couple kooky thoughts on John’s rich commentary on this story:
stoning. We all know that they say,
“Moses commanded us to stone such women,” and Jesus says, “Let the one among
you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
worth noticing that both sides are twisting the Law of Moses. Actually, what Moses says is, “If a man
commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the
adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10). Both of them.
And John is careful to quote them saying, “This woman was caught in the
very act of committing adultery”: you can’t catch one without the other.
going on? How faithful are they to the
Law? Are they “without transgression,”
even here? Or are they instead prosecuting
the one side of the Law that they like, and ignoring the other? There’s something dramatic about how they
“made her stand in the middle.” In the
Greek, I think, it’s a phrase that always emphasizes being the weirdo, the one
unlike everyone who surrounds you. We’re
talking about a bunch of men attacking a woman: “the scribes and the Pharisees
brought a woman.”
used to hating on the Law of Moses that we miss its civilizing effect. Killing the woman is what every pagan culture
does. Punishing the man, too, is a
dramatic move toward social responsibility.
stoning. It sounds so brutal to us, but
Jesus’s words remind us how it worked.
He says, “throw the first stone.”
But the whole point of stoning is that no one throws the first
stone. Modern firing lines are a bit
like this: when they execute someone by gunfire, the Nazis would have one man
do it, so he knows he did it, but more civilized societies have several guns,
and one of them is not loaded, so that each man can hope maybe it wasn’t
him. Stoning is a form of execution that
demands responsibility from everyone in the community. You don’t send someone to an abstract Death Row
where you never have to think about it again: everyone in the community has to
stare the death penalty in the face, and participate in it.
trying to defend capital punishment. I’m
trying to say that Moses is always taking a step in the right direction, a step
toward civilization, toward at least recognizing what the death penalty
not the bad guy in this story. In fact,
the goodness of Moses brings out the evil of the scribes and Pharisees, who
ignore the sin of the man and can’t bear to take personal responsibility for
the punishment that sounded so exciting to them.
law is not about lynching people who are different from us, much as we like to
twist it in that direction. God’s law is
about growing in personal responsibility.
side, now God’s side.
bending. Several times in the story,
“Jesus bent down” and then “straightened up.”
In Greek it’s the same word: he bends, and he unbends. That’s a weird image, and not the way modern
writers write—but it is the way ancient writers write. To their rigidity, Jesus responds with flexibility. It’s not the flexibility of condoning sin—he
tells her to sin no more. But it is the
flexibility of second chances. It is the
flexibility of a God who bends down to us, and then rises up again to carry us
third: drawing on the earth. When it
says, “Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger,” I
think it’s quoting Exodus (31:18): “And he gave to Moses, when he had finished
speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of
stone, written with the finger of God.”
Jesus is the author of the Law, who wrote it with his own finger, not
only on tablets of stone, but right into the earth itself, when he created
earth into which he inscribed it is more flexible than stone. He doesn’t change the Law—Jesus is clear
about the evil of adultery, and tells the woman to sin no more—but he has the
flexibility and strength to wipe away this sin from her heart. Not everything is written in stone.
Where is Jesus calling you to offer
others—or yourself—a second chance?