Judgment and condemnation: we are all in need of mercy

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  • March 3, 2016

Fifth Sunday of Lent (Year C) March 13 (Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11)

The biblical witness is resounding — God is always compassionate and just, and concerned with the well-being and happiness of humanity. Freedom and redemption are expressions of God, and these qualities never wavered throughout Israel’s history. But in the mid-sixth century B.C., the people of Israel found themselves captives and exiles in Babylon. Jerusalem, along with its temple, had been utterly destroyed. This caused a crisis of faith among many people, and a collective search for the meaning of the disaster. Most blamed themselves for what had happened. Infidelity to God in so many ways could only end badly.

In this portion of Isaiah, written towards the end of the exile, the people were given new hope. Their captivity was coming to an end and they were going home. God called to mind the powerful acts exercised on Israel’s behalf during the exodus — the liberation from Egypt — and the many acts of kindness, care and mercy given to the people during the journey. God always surpasses His compassion and mercy. All of that is nothing, God insisted, compared to what I am preparing to do. God was preparing a new exodus, this time from Babylon. A way was being prepared through the wilderness and rivers would flow in the desert, all on behalf of God’s people.

What does that have to do with us? Simply put, God is still at work, both in our individual lives and in the life of the world. When we recall God’s wondrous and saving deeds of the past, it should always be with the expectation of even greater things to come. God is never stingy with grace and compassion. There is a catch: our minds and hearts have to be open enough to recognize and accept the path to freedom and happiness that God offers us. Being stuck in the past or allowing fear and defensiveness to rule our lives can rob us of God’s gifts and graces.

No one could accuse Paul of failure to recognize that path, although he had a shaky start. He was so overwhelmed with God’s grace and mercy that everything that came before seemed absolutely worthless in comparison. One desire and thought consumed him: to know Christ and the power of His resurrection. This powerful motivating force enabled Paul to endure the many hardships of his extensive mission. Eating, drinking and breathing are fundamental for life. In a similar fashion, knowing Christ personally and becoming like Him have to be just as important to us as these things, perhaps even more.

Unfortunately, scapegoating is alive and well. In times of uncertainty or tension, this can have lethal consequences. Individual people, or more often groups of people, become the targets or scapegoats for the projected collective darkness of others. Blamed for their troubles, real or imagined, these unfortunate targets can become victims of calumny, persecution, violence, even death.

In our own time, many groups of have been scapegoated: immigrants, Muslims, dissidents, gays, various ethnic or religious minorities or any other group perceived to be different or threatening. It is evident in the pages of the newspaper or the evening news.

In the incident of the woman taken in adultery, the lynch mob was ready to vent its fury on the unfortunate woman. Ironically, her partner in adultery was conspicuously absent from the story. Surprisingly, Jesus agreed with the strictures of the Law, stipulating only that the one without sin should cast the first stone. Rather than engaging the mob in a shouting match or argument, Jesus was cool and quiet. His clever, indirect method of writing in the sand bore fruit. He had jolted their minds and consciences, causing them to recall their own sin and darkness. They realized that they were not in a moral position to pass judgment on anyone, nor are any of us. One by one the stones dropped to the ground and the individuals in the mob silently slunk away.

Part of mercy is the avoidance of judgment and condemnation. Not even Jesus condemned the woman. A little honest introspection and fearless personal moral inventory would be so helpful and healing in our polarized and often vicious political, social and religious controversies. We are all in great need of mercy. Perhaps that is why we shrink back from it so often.

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