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MARCH 25, 2007: Fifth Sunday of Lent


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

God followers should integrate Yahweh's first reading words into their morning prayers: "Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" Not only is this statement central for an appreciation of Deutero-Isaiah's 16 chapters, it's central in any person's life of faith.

Years ago, in a 60 Minutes interview, Duke Ellington bemoaned how some in his concert audiences treated him. "They always want me to play my songs from the 30s and 40s," he remarked, "exactly as I recorded them in the 30s and 40s. If I change just one note, they complain. They don't appreciate the music I'm writing and playing now."

Ricky Nelson said something similar in his 1972 hit Garden Party. Reacting to how he thought the crowd had received him during a Madison Square "oldies" concert, he penned the words, "If memories were all I sang, I'd rather drive a truck."

Deutero-Isaiah's audiences could easily relate to Ellington and Nelson's audiences. They knew all about Yahweh's glory days - the liberation from Egypt, the miraculous crossing of the sea, the conquering of Canaan. They heard these events repeated over and over again during liturgies held in the now destroyed Jerusalem temple. Grounded and supported by such narratives of Yahweh's past deeds, they were unable to notice the new things Yahweh was accomplishing for them during the Babylonian Exile.

The God who once "opened a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters" is now creating a way for the Chosen People in the wasteland lying between Babylon and Israel. Yet no one notices, because it isn't an exact repeat of what Yahweh accomplished during the Exodus 700 years before.

Paul also had to go through a period of adjusting to the new way God had entered in his life in the person of the risen Jesus. His reflections of that experience have echoed in Christian ears for almost 2,000 years. "I consider everything as a loss," he writes the Philippian community, "because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord . . . . It is not that I have already taken hold of (the resurrection) or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus . . . forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead . . . ." The Apostle presumed God will work in his life through the risen Jesus in ways completely different from how God worked in the past.

In today's gospel pericope we see Jesus demonstrate a new way of God relating to sinners. No longer is it "you did the crime, now you do the time." God goes beyond punishing and leads us down the uncharted road of forgiveness.

Though this narrative of the woman taken in the act of adultery makes almost everyone's top ten lists of favorite biblical passages, it wasn't originally part of John's gospel. The New American Bible puts the story in brackets because it's not included in the best and oldest manuscripts of John. (And some gospel manuscripts which do include it, put it in chapter 21 of Luke instead of chapter 8 of John.) The vocabulary, style and theology are Luke's, not John's. Yet, after 20 centuries, it's still around, giving comfort to sinners and guilty consciences to the "good folk." Its punch line - "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her!" - has deeply embedded itself into our faith and culture.

Jesus' exchange with the sinful woman is a constant reminder to his followers that he's also "doing something new." He never stops at the boundaries which Christian churches and theologians set for him.

Though probably tempted to do so, there's no record Jesus ever applied for membership in the Capernaum teamsters local.