We are already just a couple weeks away from Easter and the week right after is finals week at Grand Valley. Lent will soon be over, and perhaps it was not exactly what we had hoped it would be. Maybe we haven’t done anything that differently this Lent; perhaps we had good intentions to give up this or that, spend some extra time praying, give some extra alms, and maybe we haven’t done as well as we had hoped. It’s true that sometimes our plans or our expectations don’t always pan out the way we had hoped. Sometimes this is because of circumstances that are out of our control. But other times it’s due to our own inertia, a reluctance to change, a lack of discipline, and so on.
Whatever it might be, it’s good to acknowledge it – not to pretend that we’re doing great if we’re not; not to make excuses for ourselves; not to try to justify our behavior. Acknowledge it – but then move on. There are still two weeks left of Lent; three weeks left in the semester; regardless of how you did in the weeks leading up to now, take advantage of the time you have left and resolve to do what you had originally hoped to do.
At various points in my life, I have heard people say that they have no regrets. Personally, I wonder how that’s possible: you mean you’ve done everything right in life? Maybe what they mean is that they don’t dwell on their mistakes. I think regrets have their place in that we can learn from our mistakes, but we shouldn’t dwell too much on them. Everyone makes mistakes; let’s learn from them so we can live differently and better and more wisely in the future.
There is a common theme in all of our readings today of looking forward. Our first reading from the prophet Isaiah recalls the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt – an event that we’ve heard referenced several times throughout Lent. It remembers the wonders that the Lord performed for his chosen people; in fact it doesn’t say anything about regrets or mistakes. But after remembering how God delivered the Israelites from their enemies, it somewhat surprisingly says, “Remember not the things of the past!” Why? It goes on to say: “See, I am doing something new!” The Lord is going to do even greater things in the future.
In our second reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, he says: “Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind, but straining forward to what lies ahead….” Paul doesn’t want to dwell on the past, on the mistakes, on the failures. He knows that he has not yet reached “perfect maturity”, or perfect holiness, in Christ. Nor does he want to look back at the things from his former life before he chose to follow Christ. He knows that he needs to press ahead, to “continue the pursuit toward the goal,” which is “the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.”
In other words, there is more to be done. We have been given this one life, and it is precious. Time is a precious gift, and it is always passing. Learn from one’s mistakes, but don’t spend too much time dwelling on them, because time is passing and there is still work to be done. We are called to keep pursuing the goal.
Incidentally, in seminary I wrote a paper on our Gospel reading. I won’t go into things like the origins of this story, how some scholars say it originated in Luke’s Gospel and somehow later found its way into John’s, what was Jesus writing on the ground, and so on. Rather I want to focus on this theme of going forward.
Jesus has come into the temple in Jerusalem, where he is confronted once again by the scribes and Pharisees. And they have brought with them a woman who they say was caught in the very act of adultery. Which makes me wonder: where’s the man? Why didn’t they bring him along too? Anyway, they’ve brought this woman and they present Jesus with a conundrum: “In the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” They are setting a trap for Jesus: if Jesus were to say, you’re correct; go ahead and stone her, he would be violating Roman law, which certainly believed in capital punishment, but reserved for itself the right to apply capital punishment. Not to mention that that would contradict the mercy that Jesus so often talked about. On the other hand, if he said they shouldn’t stone her, they could accuse him of violating Mosaic Law.
Of course Jesus is able to turn the tables on them and teaches them (and us) something in the process. “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” he says to them. They all are holding stones; presumably they were ready to stone her; maybe they don’t care so much about the Roman Law after all. Jesus is in effect saying, Don’t pay attention to her sins; look instead at your own. It goes back in a way to his teaching about the plank vs. the speck in the eye. It’s very easy and even comfortable to examine the sins of others, not so easy to examine our own. Easy to judge others, not so easy to judge ourselves.
Either they are stumped, or regretful, or both, but they drop their stones one by one and leave. Jesus is left alone with the woman. And what Jesus say to her? First, he says, “Has no one condemned you? Then neither do I condemn you.” Does this mean Jesus is saying, Hey, adultery, no big deal? As long as it’s between consenting adults? You do you? No, rather he says, “Go and sin no more.”
Jesus says elsewhere in the Gospels that he came not to condemn but to give life. And that is what he offers the woman: new life. Whereas the scribes and Pharisees were ready to take her life, Jesus wants to give her new life. “Go, and sin no more.” Leave these sins, your old life, behind you, and come forward with me and towards me to a new and better life. Jesus came not condemn us to death but to give us the promise of new life. Which means leaving sinful patterns and behaviors behind and going forward with Christ.
Like the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt, God calls us to a new exodus, to go forward with him to new life. Let us renew our Lenten promises, or maybe begin them, not worrying about the past, but trusting in God’s love and his mercy as we go forward with him into the future.