A scholarly attempt at an interpretation of Sunday's liturgical readings.

Archive for March, 2016

Caught in the act

Pope Francis, curiously enough, chose this year to be a “year of mercy” (2016).  Given the fact that there is so much trouble around the world would most likely explain why.

But what does having “mercy” actually mean?  Forgiving culpably guilty people who remain unrepentant?  Not likely.  I suspect that the concept of “mercy” is more like that of “compassion.”  “Compassion” comes from the Latin which means “to suffer with…”  That is to say that you somehow feel the pain of the other, and, given the proper motivation, are willing to help.  It would boil down to this:  Hate the sin, but love the sinner.

One classic example of this notion can be found in the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent (John 8:1-11), the woman taken in adultery.  Simply put, some Scribes and Pharisees brought a woman taken in adultery over to Jesus in order for him to make a judgement.  Jesus was becoming quite popular and this caused concern to many of the Scribes and Pharisees.

This “judgement” was obviously a test to see whether Jesus would agree with the Mosaic Law or not.  The law demanded stoning.  Would Jesus say “yes” (according to the Law) or “no,” a sign of his compassion, which would mean opposition to the letter of the Law.

In truth, Jesus showed “mercy.”  That is, hated the sin but loved the sinner.  For example, the Scribes and Pharisees asked the pointed question that had to do with the letter of the Mosaic Law which demanded that a woman caught in adultery be stoned to death.  They asked Jesus, “What do you say?”

After a few lengthy pauses, while doodling on the ground, Jesus ignored the question and focused on the motivation of the question and ultimately retorted: “He among you who is without sin,  let him cast the first stone.”

I strongly suspect that that group of Scribes and Pharisees knew each other very well, and most likely each of the individuals participated in any skulduggery about which the others knew.  So…they remained silent, and gradually slunk away.

Jesus then turned to the woman and said: “Has no one stayed to condemn you?”  She replied, “No one.”  Then Jesus answered, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”

Note clearly what takes place here.  Jesus recognized that sin had taken place (John 8:11) but told her to sin no more.  What does this mean?  Above all, I think  that Jesus wanted all of us to distinguish between the letter of the Law and the spirit of the Law.  We have the case of Jesus and his disciples crossing grainfields-on the Sabbath.  The disciples were hungry, so they plucked the grain.  This, of course, made the Pharisees unhappy because the Sabbath had been “violated.”  So, Jesus commented, “…The Sabbath was made for humankind, and not humankind for the Sabbath.”  (Mark 2:27)  This was obviously a case regarding priorities.  Letter or spirit of the Law?.  [See similar example: Mark 3:1-6]

In the case of the woman taken in adultery, Jesus showed compassion, and thus mercy.  In the case of the disciples in the grainfields, Jesus made a distinction between the letter and the spirit of the Law, which also indicated mercy.  One of our lessons from this Gospel reading is to show mercy on ourselves and others by distinguishing the sin from the sinner and by establishing our priorities of whether the spirit or the letter of the Law is more important.

If ever we are in the situation of being caught in the act of, or of catching others about to be caught in the act of regarding the effects of temptation, it would be well to remember the above two points.




Finding What Was Lost

How would you react if one of your children tells you that he/she is bored at home and wants to go out and “experience” the world as the TV commercials have described it?  Say “yes,” “no,” or start a fight?  This potential experience could start a problem that would need a lasting solution.

The Gospel for the Fourth Sunday in Lent (Luke 15:11-32) provides us with some reflection on how to deal with the issue.  Jesus is asked why on occasion he discusses and eats with sinners.  He responds by telling the parable frequently called “The Prodigal Son.”

The parable begins, “There was a man who had two sons….” then Jesus goes on to contrast between the “good” son and the “bad” son. He does so in three stages.  First, the contrast.  Second, the results.  Third, the solution.

First, the contrast.  The younger son (“bad”) takes the money from his inheritance, goes on a binge drinking, playing around with women, and further seeks to “enjoy” what the world has to offer.  The older son (“good”) stays at home, being obedient to the father, and helping out however he can.

Second, the results.  A  famine hits the land and the younger son is devastated.  Not only has the boy spent all of his money, but starvation is now a new experience for him.  So he hires himself out as a servant and is given the task of feeding animals.  Thinking to himself that things were much better at home, he decides to return and apologize to his father for what he had done. Because of his proper and supportive behavior at home, the elder son maintains the designation of the “good” son.

Third, a partial solution to the question of why Jesus consorts with sinners.  From a distance, the father sees his younger son returning home and is so excited.  He gives instructions to his servants that his younger son be dressed properly and that the fattened calf provide the basis for the following fiesta of welcome.

Meanwhile, the older brother suddenly realized what was happening, and railed against his father.  In effect,”All these years I have served you well yet you never gave me an animal to feast on with my friends.”  Despair in the air. Frustration and jealousy.  The father responds.  “My son, everything that I have is yours.  But now your brother has returned.  We must celebrate.”

What make this a solution?  Remember that this is a parable.  Quite likely, Jesus intends that God is the father and the central character in the parable.  What the father (God) is displaying is “merciful love.”  That is to say, that no matter how bad things are, God will forgive you in spite of your sinfulness.

The prophet Hosea helps us to understand this attitude.  (Hosea 14:1-9, especially verse 4 where YHWH says of sinful Israel, “I will love them freely…”)  What this passage points out is that religious logic ordinarily follows three stages:  SIN-CONVERSION-PARDON.  Hosea’s pattern is different:  SIN-PARDON-CONVERSION.

However, this does not mean that contrition/sorrow isn’t necessary, but it does mean that it comes about  as an ANSWER to God’s love and not as a precondition to pardon.  This is an example of God’s merciful love.  You are sorry for your sins because you believe that God loves you.

A key conclusion from this Gospel is that God is a merciful father.  No matter how sinful we become, God’s loving mercy will forgive us and that loving forgiveness elicits from us a sorrow.  The stronger our belief in that process, the greater will be the possibility of forgiveness.

Sinfulness makes us lost.  But in the final verse of today’s Gospel, the father tells his older son when speaking of the younger son can also be said of us.  “But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother (sister) was dead and has come to life again.  He/she was lost and has been found.”








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