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Patricia Datchuck Sánchez

The Divine Mercy

Isaiah 43:16-21
Philippians 3:8-14
John 8:1-11

God’s presence in a human life automatically creates new possibilities and choices. For Israel, the choice was one of nationhood and freedom in a covenantal relationship of limitless possibilities (Isaiah). For the accused woman, the choice was one of a new integrity created by Jesus’ healing forgiveness. The Pharisees were offered the possibility of perceiving themselves and God in a new light (John). In order to choose responsibly and answer life’s God-given possibilities, the believer must be daily formed by faith into the pattern of Christ’s dying and rising (Philippians).

Isaiah 43:16-21.

As the founding moment of Israel’s long evolution as a people, the exodus from Egypt of a band of slaves under Moses’ leadership was thenceforth regarded as the pivotal event of Israelite history. Because of its essential importance the exodus and many of the particulars that surrounded it (the Reed Sea, Moses, desert trek, manna, water from the rock, etc.) were understood as types of other events that succeeded them. By definition the typical sense of scripture is the meaning persons, places and events possess because, according to the intention of the divine author, they foreshadow future things. Because the types and their antitypes (those they foreshadowed) appeared at two different points of time, the typical sense became apparent only when the antitype appeared. Moreover, the type is an imperfect silhouette, not a portrait of the antitype. Given this brief explanation, the modem reader can therefore look at today’s text with the eyes of a Deutero-Isaiah, who saw the exodus from Egypt as a type of the release from exile in Babylonia. For that reason, he described the return home across the Syrian desert in terms borrowed from the pentateuchal narrative of the Exodus.

Writing during the latter half of the sixth century B.C.E. as one who shared the pain of his people’s shameful detainment in Babylonia, the author of Deutero-Isaiah (Chapters 40-55) labored to lend hope and encouragement to his fellow exiles. The prophet exhorted his fellow Jews to look to the past and to remember the wondrous acts of their God all through the stages of their development as a people. But, while reminding his contemporaries of their history, he challenged them not to dwell in the past for its own sake, but to take hope from the past and look for similar divine acts of mercy and power in the future: “The things of long ago consider not; see I am doing something new!” (v. 18).

By this statement, Deutero-Isaiah called his people to prepare themselves, not for a repetition of an ancient happening (exodus), but for the continuation of the process of redemption initiated by that event. Rather than look upon what happened to them as merely historic occurrences, the prophet presented the facts to his people in terms of a relationship endangered by infidelity and alienation but in the process of being mended. By describing the return of the exiles to Israel in Eden-like images and by drawing upon exodus terminology as well, the prophet gathered all the decisive moments of Israel’s relationship with their God, from the primeval creation and their birth as a nation to their reinstatement as a free people. All these realities were at the heart of the prophet’s Book of Consolation and, as such, inspired today’s first reading.

Philippians 3:8-14.

An objective outsider, looking at Paul’s life before Christ, would probably have judged him to be a rather fortunate person. Born of Jewish parents in the Hellenistic town of Tarsus, he experienced the best of both worlds. Paul enjoyed Roman citizenship and, in addition to his knowledge of the Greek language, culture and philosophies, he had also been schooled in the richness of his Jewish heritage under an eminent rabbi (Acts 22:3). He had achieved a certain status in Judaism as a recognized official and/or teacher as was evident from the authority he wielded against the Jesus movement prior to his conversion (Acts 9:1-2, 22:5, 26:12). Nevertheless. Paul looked upon all his advantages and privileges as “loss” and as “rubbish” (v. 8) compared to the wealth of blessings he had received in Christ Jesus. By this harsh evaluation of his former life and of what others would have regarded as riches indeed, Paul sought to defend Christianity against certain elements in Philippi who militated against the healthy spiritual development of community.

Chapter three of Philippians seems out of context with the rest of the letter and, as such, it is one of the most convincing proofs that the letter is a composite one, consisting of sections of two or three separate letters. In chapter three, Paul’s polemical remarks were directed either at the Judaizers or at the “gnostic-enthusiasts.” Both groups were extremists who thought they had attained the justice Paul knew could be achieved only by faith in Jesus Christ.

At one extreme were the Judaizers who insisted on imposing Mosaic law upon all believers, including gentiles. As Christians, the Judaizers had brought with them to the faith the Jewish ideal that being just consisted in being found blameless in God’s sight through the perfect observance of the law. At the other extreme were the gnostic “Christian-enthusiasts” who believed themselves to be already perfected and justified by virtue of their baptism into Christ. In the middle of the two extremes stood Paul who understood that he had been justified because of Jesus and by faith in him but had not yet been perfected.

For Paul, faith in Jesus meant becoming like him, and that entailed being “formed into the pattern of his death” (v. 10). “Formed into” was a term based on the root morphe which indicated that such formation involved an essential conformity to or solidarity with the sufferings of Jesus. That conformity could not be achieved by the law or even automatically by baptism, but was a gradual process of knowing Christ expressed in continued conversion. Paul’s analogy of the runner in the race is an apt illustration of the gradual nature of being “formed into” the pattern of Jesus’ passion and death. Like the runner who has already begun the course, the baptized Christian has been “grasped by Christ,” i.e., initiated into the process of lifelong conversion. The entire span of a believer’s life-however short or long--can be likened to the race course. The goal, union with the risen Lord, is in sight, but is not yet fully achieved until the entire race has been faithfully run.

John 8:1-11.

Although the story of Jesus and the accused woman was from a pre-Johannine source and did not appear in any of the earliest known manuscripts, it was nevertheless an ancient tradition and was included in the scriptural canon. As the story unfolds, Jesus is portrayed as a living expression of the divine mercy, a wise and kind judge, more concerned with forgiveness and rehabilitation than with punishment and death.

H. Riesenfeld has suggested that the early church, in its struggle to maintain strict penitential discipline, may not have been able to reconcile its practices with the ease with which Jesus forgave the woman. For that reason, Riesenfeld believed the story was temporarily set aside by the early church and was only later granted canonical approbation. Actually, in the interchange with the woman and her accusers, Jesus did not laxly ignore the woman’s sin. Rather, he ordered her to refrain from sinning.

The real focus of the narrative should be on the attitude of the self-appointed, righteous ones whose harsh judgment of the woman clouded their consciences to their own sinfulness. Instead of saying, “Let the one among you who has no sin be the first to cast a stone at her,” Jesus could just as aptly have said, “If you want to avoid judgment, stop passing judgment!” (Matthew 7:1) or “Should you not deal mercifully with your fellow servants, my heavenly Father will treat you in exactly the same way unless each of you forgives one another from the heart!” (Matthew 18:33, 35).

According to the fourth gospel, Jesus had been teaching daily in the temple precincts while spending his nights on the Mount of Olives (John 7:53-8:1). Crowds had been assembling to hear his teaching and this may have angered the Pharisees and scribes who regarded themselves Judaism’s official teachers. The scribes by virtue of their legal expertise and the Pharisees because of their impeccable observance of the law’s minutest prescriptions were respected but also feared by the general population. That they brought the woman to Jesus was highly irregular because such a case would ordinarily have been handled by the Sanhedrin and the Roman authorities (if the sentence were a capital one). Some have suggested that the methods and motives of those who approached Jesus were not judicial at all and that those who seized the woman were renegade zealots or religious fanatics who had taken the “law” into their own hands. In any event, the evangelist attributed their purpose to an attempt to trap Jesus so as to accuse him (v. 6).

For the woman to have been accused of adultery she would have been either married or betrothed (Deuteronomy 22:21, Leviticus 20:10). Adultery was, by law, the sin of an unfaithful wife. An unfaithful husband would not have been so charged unless he committed adultery with another man’s wife. Then, he could have been charged, not by his own wife, but by the husband of the other woman. Besides being married or betrothed, the woman accused of adulterous behavior would have to have been seen by two people (only men were accepted as official witnesses, Deuteronomy 19:15) besides her husband. Forcing the woman to stand in open view of all (v. 3) was the position for an official legal interrogation. A comparison between this narrative and the story of Susanna (Daniel 8) will yield obvious parallels. In both cases, a woman accused was vindicated by one who took her side against an angry crowd but, unlike Susanna, the woman in the Johannine narrative was evidently guilty.

For centuries, speculation has been rife as to what Jesus actually wrote or traced on the ground (vv. 6, 8). Katagraphen could be translated “wrote,” “traced,” “recorded” or “registered.” For that reason, a number of possible solutions have been offered. An ancient tradition, that probably originated with Jerome, proposed that Jesus was writing on the ground in full view of all (v. 3!) the sinsof the woman’s accusers. Others (T. Manson) have suggested that Jesus’ action was a clever mimicry of the Roman legal practice whereby the judge would first write down the sentence and then read it aloud to the accused. R. E. Brown has researched several scriptural references that could shed light on Jesus’ action. In Daniel 5:24, the mysterious writing on the wall provided a divine commentary to the situation. Was Jesus’ action similar?.

Or perhaps Jesus’ writing was a dramatization of Jeremiah 17:13, “Those who turn away from you shall be written on the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water.” Others have proposed that Jesus wrote the words of Exodus 23:1, a prohibition against offering malicious witness. There is no sure way of knowing what Jesus wrote; it may be that he merely wished to show he was unmoved by the accusations of the self-righteous. However, Jesus’ statement (v. 7) about the first to cast a stone arrested his hearers and completely shattered the force of their argument against the accused.

Alone with the woman, Jesus exercised his authority, not as judge, but as savior (John 8:15). Without ignoring her sin (“avoid this sin,” v. 11), Jesus pardoned her, he who transcended the law invited the woman to do the same. She was sent on her way contrite and resolute, not only to obey the law for the law’s sake but to renew her conscience and to reform her behavior according to the loving mercy that had been shown her.

1. Life is a series of passages from youth to old age, from small dreams to fulfilled goals, from foolhardy daring to experienced risk-taking, from failure to repentance, from death to life (Isaiah).

2. Like the avid runner who carries little with him/her so as to run the course more successfully, so the wise Christian traveler realizes the relative worth of temporal goods and goals (Philippians).

3. The finger pointed in accusation is best turned upon its owner (John).

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Illustration prepared by Julie Lonneman.

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