A reflection on the readings for April 3, 2022, the Fifth Sunday of Lent (Gospel: John 8:1-11)
In an October 26, 1946, radio message to participants in the National Catechetical Congress of the United States in Boston, Pope Pius XII said, ”Perhaps the greatest sin in the world today is that men have begun to lose the sense of sin.”
This is so because Christianity’s conception of sin is so liberating, we dismiss it at our own peril. In recent years, we have chosen not to speak of “sin,” but rather human failures, immature judgments, or the process of human growth. We no longer talk about sin because it offends the sentiments and the positivity of the Church. We don’t want to bring down the uplifting atmosphere by talking about something as uncomfortable as sin.
The Gospel of the day from John the Evangelist points to this aspect of sin. We have always viewed the scribes and Pharisees who accuse the woman caught in adultery in the Gospel negatively. Nevertheless, they also point to something very important: our sensitivity to sin.
Let us put ourselves in the event captured in the Gospel story. The Pharisees and scribes bring a woman to Jesus and accuse her of adultery. They want to force Jesus to give His judgment. They ask, “Should we stone her to death or not?” If Jesus says, “stone her to death,” then all his preaching about the compassion and mercy of God will evaporate in the eyes of the people. If Jesus says, “don’t stone her to death,” then He will be accused of disobeying the Laws of Moses.
The Pharisees and the scribes are standing in the presence of God, Jesus. The first thing that happens to anyone in the presence of God is to be sensitive to sin. They are no exception to that. The response of Jesus, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” serves to heighten the scribes and Pharisees’ own sensitivity to sin.
Now they realize their sin. They realize that they are standing in the presence of the Divine and that they are testing God with their devious question. They realize that it is a sin to test God. They realize their sin of making the woman a scapegoat so that they can trap Jesus. They realize their sin of plotting. They realize their sin of perverted voyeurism into the life of an individual. They realize what they have done to the woman is a total injustice because although they claim that they caught her in the act of adultery, they have let the man go. They realize their sin of condemning people by using the Law of Moses instead of liberating them. They realize that none of them is holy enough to take the moral high ground.
One of the striking elements of the story is that the Pharisees and scribes never justify their actions. They realize that they have broken the Law of Moses just as much as they accused the woman of doing. We don’t know if they repented for their sins. Did they stop doing what they did to the woman? We don’t know. What we do know is that they became sensitive to their own sin; they owned up to it, dropped the stones from their hands, and walked away. Their response to Jesus demonstrates that in the presence of God, one becomes sensitive to sin and owns up.
Scripture is full of evidence that shows us that God’s presence increases our sensitivity to our own sinfulness. The Prophet Isaiah receives a vision of heaven. He sees Yahweh and angels. And the moment he realizes that he is in the presence of God, the first thing Isaiah says is, ”Woe is me; I am doomed! For I am a man of unclean lips, living among a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). In the presence of God, the first thing that comes to his mind is his own sinfulness.
After the huge haul of fish, Peter realizes that he is in the presence of God. The moment Peter reaches the shore, he falls at the feet of Jesus and cries out, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man” (Luke 5:8). In the presence of God, the first thing that comes to his mind is his own sinfulness.
It is often said that for Catholics, “if it is not sexual, it is not sinful.” Over time, we have reduced sin to such an understanding. We have never given a serious thought about vainglory, extravagance, polluting the earth, anger, gossip, character assassination, greed, prejudice, and judging or condemning people to hell. We have not seriously considered that is sinful to withhold our generosity to people who are jobless or to the homeless on the streets. We have never considered how irreverent we have become in the presence of God. We have not considered how we treat our spouses and children as unequal. We have never considered how we have blindly accepted entertainment news as the truth and condemned people. We have never given much thought to how we undermine the authority of the Pope. We are allowing our sense of sin and morality to be based more upon political ideology than on Scripture and the teachings of the Church.
As theologian Barbara Brown Taylor puts it: “Abandoning the language of sin will not make sin go away. Human beings will continue to experience alienation, deformation, damnation, and death no matter what we call them. Abandoning the language will simply leave us speechless before them and increase our denial of their presence in our lives.”
We are nearing the end of the Lenten season. As we get closer to Easter, it’s time to be sensitive to sins we are conveniently blind towards and own up to them. The farther we are away from God, the lesser we become aware of sin. But in the presence of God—at Mass or in prayer—we may ask the Holy Spirit to lead us to be sensitive to our own sin, and able to respond to Jesus’ call for repentance.
Image: “The Adulterous Woman – Christ Writing Upon the Ground,” James Tissot – Online Collection of Brooklyn Museum; Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 2008, Public Domain
Fr. Fredrick Devaraj comes from India. He was a member of the Congregation of the Holy Redeemer, the Redemptorists of Bangalore Province. Now he is a priest of the Archdiocese of St. Louis, Missouri, serving at St. Alban Roe Catholic Church.