Homily for March 21, 2010

Father Tom’s Homily
5th Sunday of Lent
March 21, 2010

God’s loving mercy is emphasized throughout the gospels. One can say that it is the most important message in that writing that we call the “good news.”
There is nothing we need more than God’s mercy. Jesus’ message is that it is extravagantly given to us – and this is certainly good news.

Today’s gospel story offers an excellent example of God’s tender mercy. The young woman who had been so humiliated and terrorized by a circle of viciously righteous men with sharp, heavy stones in their hands. The public scorn and its readiness to smash her head and body and limbs had torn from her any shred of hope and dignity.
Her punishment in accord with the law of Moses, would carried with it the assurance that it was God’s will. Her future was eternal damnation.

When the angry would-be executioners left Jesus alone with the woman, he addressed her with courtesy. He called her, “woman,” a title of dignity. It was the same title he had given his mother at the marriage feast of Cana.
As you may recall, when Mary told Jesus that they had run out of wine, Jesus replied, “Woman, what would you have me do?” Jesus addressed the condemned sinner in today’s gospel in the same way. “Woman,” he said, “where have your accusers gone? Is there no one to condemn you?” She replied, “No one, sir.”
Then he added, “Nor do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

Consider another story about Jesus’ treatment of a public sinner. It is in the 7th chapter of Luke’s gospel.
Jesus was a special guest at a dinner in the home of an important Pharisee. The guests were reclining on cushions at the table. Having left their sandals at the door, their bare feet spread out away from the table. According to custom, they leaned on their left elbows and reached for food with their right hands.
Such an occasion was an open house that offered the public a chance to drop by and observe the guests and listen to their conversation. It enhanced the host’s standing to have town folk drop in to see the important guests who had come to an excellent banquet in his home.
Jesus, at this point in the gospel, was surely the most sought after guest in all of Galilee. He had become the most talked-about person throughout the countryside because of his healing miracles and his powerful preaching.

There was the sound of shock from the guests and the onlookers when a so-called “sinful woman” came in and approached Jesus as he reclined at the table. The text reads, “…a woman with a bad name in the town.” This is commonly interpreted to mean she was a prostitute.
She too had heard of Jesus’ presence at the home of this prominent Pharisee. She came to honor Jesus and to mourn for her sins in a very public way.

She knelt at Jesus’ feet, sobbing so that her tears wet his feet. And she unbound her hair to dry Jesus’ dampened feet. And then she put some perfume on his feet. This caused shock among the crowd observing such an intimate act of humble service to Jesus. She could not hide her emotional and deeply felt sense of contrition.
She knew of the townspeople’s scorn for her. She had no friends, only secret clients, some of whom might have been important guests at the table.
Since no woman in that male-dominated society was allowed to earn a living with womanly work, a poor widow without a male family member to support her was usually left to become a ragged beggar.
Some impoverished women in desperation traded sexual favors to get by. Once this became known, however, she suffered public shame and ridicule, and was treated as an outcast.

She would have preferred a very private moment with Jesus, but she had to take the only opportunity that offered itself to her. So here she was with her heart on display, knowing that she was the object of everyone’s utter disgust.
Jesus responded with words of affirmation. He graciously accepted her tears and perfume and said, “Your sins are forgiven, go in peace.”

It can be no surprise, then, that Jesus treated another public sinner with courtesy and mercy.
It was the criminal crucified next to him who said, “Jesus remember me when you come into your kingdom.” Jesus responded with, “Today you will be with me in paradise.”

These three people, outcasts to everyone else, were the object of Jesus’ attention and care. The tenderness he gave to each of them is striking.
Jesus’ response to these public sinners was the central message he wishes to give to all of us. It is God’s limitless offer of forgiveness. And he teaches us to give his gift of forgiveness to one another. It is not ours to keep.

The prayer Jesus has taught us provides a summary of the gospel.
The Our Father begins, “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done.” And it spells out the primary work of the kingdom, “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.”
This means that God’s kingdom has come, and his will is done whenever we receive God’s forgiveness and share it with others. God’s kingdom is realized when mercy is received and mercy is given.
The Our Father is the catechism of God’s kingdom. It expresses God’s will with utter simplicity. It’s all about God’s gift of forgiveness – given and received God’s kingdom is a kingdom of mercy.

The woman of today’s gospel was saved from public humiliation and execution.
Jesus who gave mercy was soon to be treated without mercy. One might say, he took her place to become a victim of merciless public wrath and scorn. He was tortured and crucified.
All who hear these stories of Jesus’ mercy receive the assurance that we can be certain of God’s favorable care and merciful forgiveness without fail.

We should hear Jesus’ words in today’s gospel spoken to each of us. “… nor do I condemn you.”
We can never earn God’s forgiveness by long prayers and heroic penances. Yet, it is lavished on us by a God who never gives up on us, and embraces us with such tenderness.
The “good news” is all about God’s mercy.