16 March 2013


Fifth Sunday of Lent
Jn 8:1-11 (Is 43:16-21 / Ps 126 / Phil 3:8-14)

This is one of my favorite stories.

To create a chilling effect on his troops, Napoleon imposed death penalty for soldiers who abandoned their posts.  Thereupon, a young French soldier nonetheless broke the ranks of Napoleon’s army.  Not too long, however, he was arrested.  Thus, the apprehended soldier was scheduled for execution.  Upon hearing what had happened, the young soldier’s mother sought an audience with Napoleon and pleaded with him for her son’s life.  Because of the gravity of the offense, Napoleon stood his ground and told the poor woman, “No mercy your son deserves.”

“I know, my lord,” the mother said, “my son does not deserve mercy, for if he does then it would not be mercy at all."

Mercy is a sheer gift, neither a reward nor something one can buy if he or she has the means.  It may not be demanded but one may beg for it.  No one is entitled to it.  Nobody deserves it.

Justice is not mercy, for while no one deserves mercy, everyone deserves justice.  God is just but His greatest attribute is His mercy.

Mercy does not mean that the guilty is guiltless.  No, rather, mercy recognizes and forgives the guilt of the offender, but forgoes satisfaction for the wrong that follows the dictum “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”.  But mercy is never injustice.  It is rather justice anticipated.  Justice may be rendered with a cold heart but mercy is not possible without a heart that loves.

God speaks through the Prophet Isaiah in the first reading today.  Thus, He says to His People, “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not….”  Indeed, God is doing something new for them and this “something new” is vividly painted: rivers in wastelands, rivers not only for the beasts but also for His chosen people to drink.  What did the Israelites do to deserve such a blessing?  Nothing.  The truth is, with their glaring record of infidelities, they deserved not blessings but punishments.  But God forgave them and, restoring them to the dignity of being His chosen race, God brought about for them an even better world.  Indeed, Psalm 126, our response to the first reading today, echoes well the grateful, joyful, and hope-filled sentiments of God’s People.

The same merciful love, God continues offering to us through Jesus Christ, His Son.  In Jesus, we do not only see how compassionate God is; we experience how unimaginably merciful He is as well.  Indeed, He is the prodigal father of the younger and elder sons in the parable last Sunday.  God is prodigal with His love for all of us.  This love, according to the wise reflection of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, we see crucified at Calvary, is the mad love of God for us.  The same Pope Emeritus, in his first encyclical, “Deus Caritas Est”, pointing to the same cross, wrote, “…we see God’s mercy overcoming His justice.”  Jesus is God’s mercy to us all.

Thus, we hold dear to our hearts the unchanging significance of the words of the Apostle Paul in the second reading today: “I consider everything 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….”  For us, Christians, nothing compares to the joy of being intimately united to Christ Jesus who is the Father’s mercy upon us.  However, like the Apostle, we confess to our imperfection, not with hopelessness but with hope in the Lord that spurs us on to pursue our goal of perfect maturity.  This hope emanates from the fact that, as St. Paul says today, we “have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus.”  Notice the words of the Apostle: “taken possession of by Christ Jesus.”  It is not us who possess the Lord.  The Lord possesses us!

The Gospel today therefore invites us to be more trusting of the Lord.  Let us entrust to Him our entire selves, our real selves.  Let us give Him not only what is good in us but also what is sinful.  Unlike our first parents who hid from God after they disobeyed Him in the garden, let us not hide from the Lord.  With hearts contrite and resolving to amend our ways, let us now whisper to God: “I have sinned against Thee, and I do not deserve Thy mercy.  But, O God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”

This is precisely what the scribes and the Pharisees in the same Gospel today overlooked: their own sinfulness and need for God’s mercy.  They were quick to condemn the woman they caught in adultery but were slow in confessing their own guilt.  Evidently with not an ounce of humane consideration at all, they dragged her and embarrassed her in public, exposing her not only to the curiosity of people but also to the harsh judgment of the mob.

But we doubt if the accusers of this woman were really vanguards of morality, for they used her only to trap Jesus.  It was Jesus whom they really wanted dead, not the woman.  If in response to their query, “What have You to say?” Jesus were to say, “Let her go free”, they would feel justified in accusing Jesus of breaking the Law of Moses and even condoning adultery.  But if Jesus were to reply, “Stone her to death”, then they could declare Jesus unmerciful and even accuse Him of the crime of violating the legal restriction that says that only the Roman authorities may impose the death penalty.

The enemies of Jesus tried trapping Him in the difficult and dangerous situation of “damn-if-you-do-damn-if-you-don’t”.  But Jesus knew better.  To the intriguing question, Jesus responded by writing with His finger on the ground.  What did He write?

Our English translation does not give us any clue about what Jesus wrote on the ground, but the original Greek text of the Gospel today does.  The writer of St. John’s Gospel did not use the usual Greek word for “write”, which is graphein, but katagraphein which means “to draw up a list against someone”.  We may, therefore, surmise that Jesus must have listed on the ground the sins of the accusers of the adulterous woman.  Thus, when nagged for a reply to their question, Jesus stood up and told them straight in the eye, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  But He was not yet done with the listing, so Jesus bent down and continued with the inventory of their sins.

A very important note though: although Jesus did not condemn the woman, neither did He condone what she did.  “Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus told her.  “Go and sin no more.”  His words are words of invitation, mandate, and warning to her.

Jesus invites the woman to conversion that requires much change in her lifestyle, focusing her whole life on God in whom all creation, humans foremost, finds the completion of its joy.  It is an invitation to struggle with one’s self, with the assurance of victory against evil already because of the abiding and loving assistance of God’s merciful love.

That Jesus sends her forth.  “Go,” He tells her – signals a mandate given her.  He commissions her to go and be a witness to the mercy that she herself received from God.  Such a witnessing necessarily and always obliges her to be merciful to others, too.

Jesus likewise warns the woman.  His words – “…from now on do not sin anymore” – seem to beg the question “If I continue sinning anyway, what?”  As there are consequences to each and every action of ours, so does our every sinful act have its effects on us and on others, too.  Whatever those specific effects are, the Apostle Paul summarizes in these words: “The wage of sin is death” (Rom 6:23).

God’s mercy, therefore, should be correctly understood and handled with utmost care and reverence.  It is never a license for anyone to continue sinning, with the thought that the mercy of God is always available anyway to those who are sorry for their sins.  God’s mercy indeed is a sure gateway to salvation but never an excuse for a life of debauchery.  God’s mercy, as we see gratuitously given to the adulterous woman in the Gospel today, is gentle but does make valid and serious demands on its recipients.

We are all beneficiaries of God’s mercy.  The adulterous woman in the Gospel today stands for each of us: sinners yet loved.  To each of us, too, is given the same invitation, mandate, and warning first given to that woman.  We are invited to conversion, always trusting completely on God’s aid and never on our own efforts alone.  We are commanded to share with others, most especially with those who most need it, the mercy that we ourselves received from God.  And we ought to seriously heed the warning that the same mercy issues forth to us.  In these remaining Lenten days, may the Spirit of Jesus, who drove Him into the wilderness when we started this holy season, move us deeply and enlighten us clearly on the immense grace of God’s mercy and the true responsibilities it entrusts to us as well.

We do not deserve mercy, for if we do then it is not mercy at all.  But is always merciful to us.  Ought we not be merciful to one another, too?


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