03 April 2022

Homily - The Fifth Sunday of Lent - 3 April 2022

The Fifth Sunday of Lent (C)[1]

Dear brothers and sisters,

Why is it that the scribes and the Pharisees conspired together “to test” the Lord Jesus “so that they could have some charge to bring against him” (John 8:6)? Was the woman who committed adultery somehow connected to him? Why accuse him?

Saint Augustine provides for us an insight into their mindset. Our great patron suggests that the scribes and Pharisees saw in Jesus his meekness and his very great gentleness. Here he saw a connection with Psalm 45, which he read to speak of the Christ:


You are the most handsome of men; fair speech has graced your lips, for God has blessed you forever. Gird your sword upon your hip, mighty warrior! In splendor and majesty ride on triumphant! In the cause of truth and justice may your right hand show you wondrous deeds” (Psalm 45:3-5).

In these verses, Saint Augustine saw both Jesus’ meekness and his righteousness. This is why he says that “as a teacher, he brought truth; as a deliverer, he brought gentleness; as a protector, he brought righteousness.”[2]

We hear throughout the Gospels that truth was acknowledged when Jesus spoke and that the people praised his meekness when his enemies did not provoke him to anger. Because of this the scribes and the Pharisees were inflamed to both malevolence and resentment. And because of his righteousness, they plotted to set a trap for him, to test him, as the Evangelist puts it. But why did they do so using the woman caught in adultery?

The law of Moses commanded that adulterers be stoned (cf. Deuteronomy 22:23-24). Because the law cannot command what is unjust, if Jesus were to say the woman should not be stoned, he would show, by his own words, he was not righteousness. But if he were to say the woman should be stoned, he would show, by his own words, he was neither gentle nor meek. It was a clever trap, and if Jesus proved himself an enemy of the law, it would mean he, too, should be killed. Clever though this trap might have been, “it was perversity against rectitude, falsehood against truth, the corrupt heart against the upright heart, folly against wisdom.”[3]

When he answered their challenge, Christ Jesus both maintained his righteousness by upholding the law and demonstrated his gentleness by not condemning the sinful woman. Not speaking against the law, he did not say, “Do not stone her.” But neither did he say, “Let her be stoned,” because, as he said elsewhere, “the Son of Man has come to seek and to save what was lost” (Luke 19:10). In his answer, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw at a stone at her,” we find righteousness, meekness, and truth (John 8:7).

By responding in this manner, the Lord Jesus caused the scribes and the Pharisees to go into themselves because externally they stood ready to charge and condemn, but internally they had not examined themselves. Though they themselves had violated the law, they wanted the law to be followed, without acknowledging what this would mean for themselves. At this point, Jesus “bent down and wrote on the ground with his finger,” but what did he write (John 8:8)?

Although the scribes and the Pharisees recognized that the people saw in Jesus a teacher and a guardian of the law, they did not understand him to be a lawgiver, as Moses had been. This is why Saint Augustine asked,


What else does he signify to you when he writes with his finger on the ground? For the law was written with the finger of God; but written on stone because of the hard-hearted. The Lord now wrote on the ground, because he was seeking fruit. You have heard then, let the law be fulfilled, let the adulteress be stoned. But is it by punishing her that the law is to be fulfilled by those that ought to be punished? Let each of you consider himself, let him enter himself, ascend the judgment-seat of his own mind, place himself at the bar of his own conscience, oblige himself to confess… Each looking carefully into himself, finds himself a sinner. Yes, indeed. Either let this woman go, or together with her receive the penalty of the law.[4]

Not wanting to be punished themselves, “they went away one by one” (John 8:9).

Standing there alone with the woman, he said to her, “Neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11). But lest some think he approved of sin, he added, “Go, and from now on do not sin any more” (John 8:11). Note that he did not say, “Go, and live as you will,” but, “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” The Lord did not condemn sinners, but he did condemn sins.

At this point in his reflections of this passage, Saint Augustine offers us a warning for the salvation of our souls:

The Lord is gentle, the Lord is long-suffering, the Lord is pitiful; but the Lord is also just, the Lord is also true. He bestows on you space for correction; but you love the delay of judgment more than the amendment of your ways. Have you been a bad man yesterday? Today be a good man. Have your done on in wickedness today? At any rate change tomorrow. You are always expecting, and from the mercy of God make exceeding great promises to yourself. As if he, who has promised pardon through repentance, promised you also a longer life. How do you know what tomorrow may bring forth?[5]

For this reason, we must both fear God’s just judgment and hope in his loving mercy as we strive to resist temptation and avoid sin.

In these remaining days of Lent, “let us learn from the Lord Jesus not to judge and not to condemn our neighbor.”[6] Let us “be intransigent with sin starting with our own! and indulgent with people,” so the Lord Jesus may also say to us, “Neither do I condemn you.”[7] Amen.

[1] Adapted from Saint Augustine of Hippo, Tractates on the Gospel of John, 33.

[2] Ibid., 4.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid., 5.

[5] Ibid., 7.

[6] Pope Benedict XVI, Angelus Address, 21 March 2010.

[7] Ibid.

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