|Date:||March 12-13, 2016, Fifth Sunday in Lent, Cycle C|
Saint Margaret Mary Alocoque was a 17 century nun and mystic, who at the age of 20, started having visions of Jesus who eventually told her to promote devotion to His sacred heart. At first no one believed that the visions were actually Jesus. She even told her confessor Father Claude de la Colombiere who was not impressed at all. To prove to her that this was not really Jesus, he told Sr. Margaret Mary that if the vision were to appear again, she was to ask it, “What sins did Father de la Colombiere confess yesterday?”She did, and returned to him confused. “What did he say?” the confessor asked. “He told me he did not know,” she responded simply. “He has forgotten.” And from that point on the confessor believed her, for only God forgets our sins – the devil uses them against us.
All of today's readings are about forgetfulness, and its fundamental relationship with mercy.
In the first reading God speaks through the prophet Isaiah to the people of Israel as they return home from 70 years of exile in Babylon. Isaiah exhorts them to forget the imprisonment and humiliation of their exile as well as their pride and arrogance based on their former glory as the chosen of God to experience God's making something new in their return home. St. Paul writes to the Philippians exclaiming that he has forgotten, put behind him, all that he has accomplished or suffered in the past, counting it all as rubbish as he focuses on the race ahead towards Christ.
And in few sentences, the Gospel story tells a compelling human tale of conflict, forgiveness, and forgetfulness. Early in the morning the scribes and the Pharisees drag a woman who was caught in the act of adultery before Jesus. They are sure they have constructed a trap from which Jesus cannot escape. They have put Jesus between the rock of Moses' law and the hard place of Roman law. Mosaic law states that a man and a woman caught in adultery are to be put to death. Roman law said that the Jews could not condemn to death and execute anyone. That right was reserved for the Romans. If Jesus said that they should obey Roman law then Jesus could be condemned to the Jews for rejecting Moses; if he said that they should obey Mosaic law and put the woman to death, then they could turn him into the Romans for rejecting Roman law.
So what does Jesus do? He does what he always does: he focuses attention on the humans involved in the situation. First he defuses what must have been the bloodthirsty crowd mentality of the moment by calmly bending down and writing in the dirt. This unknown writing has probably generated more speculation and reflection than any other unknown writing in history. But as I read all these speculations, I would suggest that most of them can be dismissed as unlikely. Most suggest that Jesus was writing the sins of those who were standing there with stones ready to kill this woman. I would suggest that this is not like Jesus; he was not one to embarrass anyone, even those who were sinners. He was just as eager to invite the scribes and the Pharisees into the kingdom of God as the woman standing before him.
Jesus is surrounded by sinners. The woman has committed a very serious sin that strikes at the heart of that most precious human relationship of marriage. The scribes and the Pharisees have committed the equally serious sin of trying to use a woman as a expendable pawn in their game of entrapment. Jesus does not point his finger at any of them, nor does he condone any of their sins. He brings their respective humanity into sharp focus, and gives them space to decide what they should do. The accusers are given the chance to make a human decision for mercy or for blind justice. They choose neither and slink away. He gives the woman a chance to make a human decision to repent of her actions. She accepts, and stays, and hears those words of forgiveness and encouragement.
I said at the start that all of today's reading are about forgetfulness. But God's forgetfulness of our sins is not the only forgetfulness we hear about. We are called on to forget our past success and accomplishments. Many self-help books tell us that up through our late 20s we tend to learn from our successes but after that we only learn from our failures. The prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures again and again challenge the people of Israel to stop placing their confidence and even arrogance in the glory of former years. They were to forget all the sacrifices and the victories and even the great signs that God had worked for them, and instead start taking care of the widows and orphans and aliens in their midst today. Perhaps it is the remembrance of all their prayers and sacrifices and study of the law that makes the scribes and the Pharisees feel entitled to judge the woman. Perhaps that is what Jesus wrote and then wiped clean from the dirt.
We too are called to forget our past accomplishments lest we think that they earn us God's love or the right to pronounce judgment on others. We are called to remember that God forgets our sins and constantly calls us to repentance. In a few short minutes we will join in praying that, as we do every week when we say, “Lord I am not worthy that you should come under my roof.” This is our prayer that counts all we have done, and been, as Paul would say, rubbish. Some people stop there though, and think that somehow the Church wants to make everyone feel worthless and unimportant. But we continue, “Only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” We say that whole prayer with the knowledge that God has spoken that word, that word who is The Word. That Word who is a word of forgiveness and forgetfulness and love that makes us eminently worthy to receive him. Not because of anything that we have done or been but because God, in the first place, loves us.
I would like to close with a very short story and a question. I have a good friend who by her own account had a very contentious relationship with her mother for most of her life. In her mother's last years as she battled Alzheimers, the increasing forgetfulness of that disease softened her mother so that my friend was able to spend many enjoyable visits talking with and even singing with her mother. So my friend has a visceral understanding of the connection between forgetfulness and mercy. My question to all of us, including me is, what is God inviting me to forget today?