In the Gospel reading for the fifth Sunday in Lent, we heard the powerful encounter of Jesus, the woman caught in adultery, and her accusers. Like two sides of the coin, Jesus takes two steps. First, he tells her accusers that the one without sin ought to cast the first stone.
Of course, one by one each accuser recalls enough weakness and imperfection in his life that the crowd becomes smaller and smaller. Finally, there is only Jesus and the woman. Jesus asks her if there was anyone left to accuse her. When she responds no one, he says neither do I. Jesus forgives the woman, and God’s mercy flows into her life.
This story has made its way into popular culture, and we often hear the caution against throwing the first stone. The topic of mercy also was on the mind of our new Holy Father, Pope Francis. Shortly after his election to the Petrine Ministry, he preached about mercy being “the Lord’s most powerful message,” and in his brief time as Holy Father, he has spoken eloquently about the tenderness and mercy of God.
In a world that too often is cruel and turns away from those most in need, his message of tender forgiveness and care for the poor has captivated us all.
Sometimes we forget the very important second step of that gift of mercy, as Jesus allows the mercy of his Father to be completed in the heart of the repentant woman when he says: “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” Just as a lifeguard who rescues a drowning swimmer from deep water does not throw the out-of-breath person back into the deep water, so Jesus does not allow the woman to leave before he calls her to conversion.
He offers her the better path — life in abundance — and so he completes the act of mercy. In this beautiful scene, we discover lasting mercy.
We who seek to discover the dignity of our identity as children of God make a claim humbly on the forgiveness of the Lord to receive God’s mercy, and we are invited to complete the reception of mercy into our hearts by turning away from sin. Such an action is not simply our way of thanking God for forgiveness. Rather, this action, which has been called a firm purpose of amendment, is itself part of that merciful deed.
Without God’s grace, we would not have the power to turn away from sin.
This understanding of the necessary connection of mercy, forgiveness, and conversion is so important in a culture that cannot seem to separate behavior from the person. I think it was Einstein who defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Whether it is stealing, a lack of chastity, not honoring mothers and fathers, or violations of any of the Ten Commandments, the flow of
God’s mercy and the life in abundance promised by Jesus involves turning away from behavior that does not support our full dignity as children of God, especially repeated patterns of sinful behavior that contribute to our brokenness. Through forgiveness, we become more than we ever dreamed we could be. This is life in abundance.
The weekend before last, more than 600 men participated in the Catholic Men’s Conference. The theme was “It’s Awesome to be Catholic.” There were many powerful elements of this full and rich morning. For me, perhaps the most touching was observing so many men receiving the Sacrament of Reconciliation. More than a dozen priests heard confessions, and I had the privilege to hear confessions for almost two hours straight!
Boy, how good it was to be a part of that mercy of God flowing into these men’s hearts. Just as truly as Jesus spoke to the woman in the Gospel, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more,” so again Jesus spoke these same words to these men as he continually speaks these words to a world desperately in need of forgiveness, hope, and the taste of life in abundance.
During Holy Week we draw close to our Savior Jesus Christ. On Good Friday, we will be reminded that he died for our sins, and on Easter Sunday, the fact of his resurrection will bring great hope to our rising above weakness and sin. Join me in celebrating these days of the Triduum. And remember, it is never too late to turn to the Lord in the Sacrament of Reconciliation.
Archbishop Joseph E. Kurtz