Our gospel passage this Sunday is one of the finest in the entire Bible. In telling the story of the woman caught in adultery , and Jesus’ response to her, it superbly illustrates everything that Lent is about: the forgiveness of sins, the lifting of the burden of condemnation, guilt and shame, and the hope of a new beginning in our lives.
Note that the scribes and Pharisees in this gospel do not seek Jesus out when he is alone but come to him while he is surrounded by a large crowd. Note also that it is only the woman who is described as having been caught in the very act of committing adultery. Where is the man she was caught with ? He is allowed to make his escape, while only the woman is to be charged. Yet the Jewish Law mandates that both the woman and the man are to be killed. The scribes and Pharisees want to make Jesus , in the face of all those people, either advise against the dictates of the Jewish Law by telling them to free the woman, or be judgmental and lacking forgiveness in contrast to his preaching.
Jesus, of course, puts the onus on their shoulders. Why did the scribes and Pharisees drop the stones and leave ? Jesus’ simple statement forced them to reflect on what they had in common with the woman..that, they, too, were sinners in need of the merciful forgiveness of God. How can one be harsh in judgment toward another when he or she calls down the same judgement upon him/herself? We cannot demand from God mercy for ourselves, yet justice for others who have offended us .
The famous parable of the “prodigal son” (perhaps better referred to as the parable of the “forgiving father”) forms our gospel passage for this weekend. Note that the parable is addressed to the Pharisees and scribes who were complaining that Jesus ate with “sinners.” They are the older brother in the parable while those they considered as sinners are represented by the younger brother. The people in this latter group were Jewish in background and belief but had chosen pathways in life which caused them to leave the embrace of the Jewish community. Tax collectors worked for the Romans and were, therefore, not welcome in synagogues. Prostitutes were excluded for their lifestyle as were a number of other “sinners” for one reason or another. Although not publicly practicing their religion, they still felt a desire in their heart to be at peace and reconciled with God, evident in their attraction to Jesus. Previously they had not been given an opening to come back to God, only judgement.
Jesus could read their hearts and received them as the father in the parable received his returning son. His openness gave them an opportunity for reconciliation with God, resulting in a celebration. At times we may tend to be like the Pharisees, judging and rejecting people rather than opening a door for restoration and reconciliation with God. We need to make a conscious effort to take Jesus’ approach if we are to call ourselves Christians. Through the father in the parable, Jesus challenges us to be understanding and patient with those who differ from ourselves in the way they think and act … to look for the communality which binds us together in the same family.
“Moses said to God, “if the people of Israel ask me ‘What is his name?’, what am I to say to them?” God replied “I AM WHO I AM “
What’s in a name? In the Bible, a great deal. The name of a person stood for that person, stood for the power and authority of that person. When God changed the name of a person in the Bible, as he does with Abram and Jacob, and as Jesus does with Simon in the gospel of John, he is changing the destiny of that person. Abram becomes “Abraham”= the father of many nations; Jacob becomes Israel = the one who prevails against God; Simon becomes “Peter”=”the Rock” on which I will build my church.
When Moses asks for God’s name in our first reading this Sunday, this is of great significance, for to know a person’s name was an indication of a personal relationship, to be able to call someone by name represented a certain level of equality or power in the relationship. It could also represent an attempt to exert control over that person, which is why Jesus always silenced the demons he cast out of people in the gospels, who were trying to speak out his name.
Just what was the name given by God in his encounter in today’s first reading? Ancient Hebrew was given in consonant letters without vowels. Only after many centuries did scribes add vowel notations. It is commonly conjectured that the YHVH was “Yahweh” and in time that name was not to be spoken out loud by Jewish people. The high priest was to whisper it once a year in the inner sanctum of the Holy of Holies. What should one say, however, when coming to the YHVH while reading the scriptural text? “Jehovah” was a word used by some, retaining the consonant sounds but with different vowel pronunciations. Other traditions simply replace it with the word “Lord.” Out of respect for the Jewish tradition of not pronouncing the name out loud, the Catholic Church in recent years has discouraged the actual saying of the word “Yahweh” and requested a change in the lyrics of songs in which the word appears.
This weekend we celebrate the feast of the Epiphany. a word which means “Appearing” or “Manifestation”. We often talk about having an “epiphany” moment, when something suddenly becomes clear to us as never before. The feast of the Epiphany, or “Manifestation” of Jesus to the visiting pagan Magi (a term which means astrologers) also “manifests” a truth, hitherto kept secret by God: “that is, the Gentiles (pagans) have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the Gospel” (from the second reading for this weekend) . Not only is it just the Jewish people who are part of God’s plan of salvation. That plan also now includes we who were “pagan” before our baptism into Jesus.
There are many practical ways in which the Feast of the Epiphany makes its point. It teaches us that in Christ there is no room for religious elitism. It may sound like a time-worn truth , but it still bears repeating: in God’s eyes all are equal. And we are not free to build roadblocks of any type. In the early church, this meant not only common worship attended by all but a common table as well. We do well to ask if we are carrying within ourselves any prejudices, conscious or otherwise, against certain types of people. This is not a textbook issue. It passes quickly from theory to practice. If we are to avoid further volatile civil situations, explosions of violence, or increased polarization, then Christians have to live according to the mind and heart of God, as “manifested” by Jesus, in his birth, life, death and resurrection. Jesus came to take away the sins of the world, not of just a certain segment of it.
Today’s epistle from St Paul’s letter to the Ephesians says that we are all co-heirs, co-members, and co-partners. We are called to a classless society in a Christian sense. Each Epiphany reminds us that we still have a way to go.
Our gospel this Sunday once more highlights the role and ministry of John the Baptist in preparing the people of Israel for the coming of Jesus. Whether the people’s going out to the Jordan to see John was motivated by curiosity or faith, many of the people experienced conversion with a desire to live more in order with God’s will. Thus, we hear groups of tax collectors and soldiersasking what they should do to live more in accord with God’s will. All of usare asked to seek out and follow the general will of God for everyone. Yet eachperson, given his or her specific life situation, will have some specificaspects of God’s will to which he or she must be particularly attentive. Whatparticular things would John point out for you, were you to be there asking aswere those tax collectors and soldiers?
John makes clear that he is not the Messiah. He is the messenger announcing the imminent coming of the Messiah who will baptize with the “Holy Spirit and fire”. While we relate that image specifically to the Pentecost event, the significance of the Holy Spirit and fire here is more generic. Fire is a symbol of purification or refining, representing the need for repentance and reform. Accepting the call to reform, the crowd has been asking John for clarification of specifically how to follow God’s will. Divine inspiration and guidance is the work of the Holy Spirit. In our Advent time of preparation, may we take that to heart, accepting the call to reform, orient our lives to God’s will more perfectly, and present ourselves as more perfect offerings in thanks to Jesus at his coming.
“A voice cries in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight…and all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (Luke 3:4-6)
Our Gospel this Sunday focuses on the person of John the Baptist and his important role in preparing the Jewish people for the coming of Jesus as their long-awaited Messiah and Savior. In the opening verses of our gospel, Luke provides a historical setting for John’s mission and gives him a great deal of print in his gospel. This not only demonstrates the importance of John as a precursor to Jesus, but also indicates the influence of his ministry. Paul, for whom Luke functioned as secretary, encountered many people during his missionary journeys who had received the baptism of John but did not yet know about Jesus. Paul needed to be very sensitive to their faith, to build on their relationship to John while leading them onward to Jesus Christ. John is given a very significant role in Luke’s gospel, but always in juxtaposition to Jesus whose mother was declared even more blessed than the mother of John, whose birth was even more miraculous, and who pointed his immediate disciples toward Jesus.
John received his call in the desert. Rather than wandering like a hermit in the desert since leaving home in his early teen years, John most likely lived at Qumran overlooking the Dead Sea with a religious community called the Essenes. They practiced a form of ritual baptism as a sign of purification and dedicated themselves to studying and copying the Hebrew scriptures. The community had established itself at Qumran to get away from the influences of the world. John was unique among the members of the community in receiving a call to go out to that surrounding world with the message of repentance.
During the Jewish uprising around 70 AD, the Essenes placed the many scrolls from their library in large clay jars which they hid in nearby caves for safekeeping as they evacuated the site to hold out against the Roman army at Masada, a bit further south along the Dead Sea. All the members of the community died at Masada. No one returned to Qumran, and the jars of scrolls, the Dead Sea Scrolls, were not discovered until the 1940s. From texts found among those scrolls is found indication that the Essenes used the same passage from Isaiah quoted about John, in today’s gospel, (Isaiah 40:3-5) to explain the existence of their community in the desert at Qumran.
This Advent, what are you doing to “prepare the way ” for the coming of Jesus?
(with thanks to Fr Denny Dempsey)