Misery and Mercy

(Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year C)

During my years in Peru (1987-94) rebel groups controlled parts of the country. While they used terror to intimidate, it must be admitted they sometimes accomplished what the government did not. They punished corrupt officials and held public trials for other offenses, like stealing or breaking marriage vows. Most people spoke favorably of these efforts to establish community discipline.

Moses tried to do something similar. To root out vicious conduct he took severe measures - what we today call "zero tolerance." Since adultery did grave harm to the community, he decreed an exemplary punishment – public stoning. In a fragmented society like ours, accustomed to marital infidelity, this seems outrageously harsh. However, for the close-knit people of first century Palestine, it did not appear so extreme.

At any rate, to appreciate today’s Gospel we must see Jesus was not merely outwitting a group of prigs. He was grappling with a genuine dilemma. Perhaps that is why he twice took time to trace letters on the ground.

When he straightened up, he announced, “Go ahead, stone the adulteress.” Discerning nervous faces in the crowd, he held out a fist sized rock. “This first stone,” he said, “belongs to the one without sin.” Of course, Jesus knows what we hide in our hearts. Who can bear his glance? Beginning with the seniors, they left one by one.

St. Augustine says only two remained: miseria et misericordia, misery and mercy. The woman represents our human misery, not just at being publicly shamed. Altho modern novels sometimes depict adultery as an act of liberation, the reality is much different. When we turn from God, the momentary self-exaltation changes to anger, depression and bitterness. We can consider conscience to be an irrational holdover and try to extinguish it, but conscience always has its revenge. As Chesterton observed, the person who suppresses the moral law will eventually be led to something even he considers degrading.

The woman caught in adultery once had a wedding ceremony attended by friends and family, including her parents. She no doubt had children whom she prized. How could this be happening to her? In her person we see human misery.

“Realist” philosophers like Schopenhauer and Nietzsche want us to believe that is the entire story. Best just to take whatever drugs to ease the pain. Nevertheless we can detect even in their writings an intimation of something more. Why else would Nietzsche prefer the Ubermensch to the couch potato (the “last man”)?

Nietzsche – and with him much of modern culture – got off the track by imagining we could create that “something more.” It cannot be fabricated, only received. And it has a face. The one who says to the woman, “neither do I condemn you.” And then the words of greatest mercy, words that imply a promise of grace, “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

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Spanish Version

From Archives (Year C homilies for Fifth Sunday of Lent):
The Breastplate (2013)
From Misery to Joy (2010)
Neither Do I Condemn You (2007)
Filled With Joy (2004)
Misery and Mercy (2001)

Homilies for Year A Readings for RCIA Scrutinies:

Revive (2011)
Overcoming the Power of Death (2008)
Joining Body with Soul (2005)
He Was Buried (2002)
On Confession and Cremation (1999)

Other Homilies

Seapadre Homilies: Cycle A, Cycle B, Cycle C

Bulletin (April Fools, Mother Teresa, Holy Week)

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