Sunday, March 21, 2010

True righteousness (5th Sunday of Lent, John 8:1-11)

Jn. 8: 1-11

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area,
and all the people started coming to him,
and he sat down and taught them.
Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman
who had been caught in adultery
and made her stand in the middle.
They said to him,
“Teacher, this woman was caught
in the very act of committing adultery.
Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.
So what do you say?”
They said this to test him,
so that they could have some charge to bring against him.
Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.
But when they continued asking him,
he straightened up and said to them,
“Let the one among you who is without sin
be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Again he bent down and wrote on the ground.
And in response, they went away one by one,
beginning with the elders.
So he was left alone with the woman before him.
Then Jesus straightened up and said to her,
“Woman, where are they?
Has no one condemned you?”
She replied, “No one, sir.”
Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.
Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

* * * * * * * *

Last Sunday we read the parable of the Prodigal Son. The younger son lived a bad life, realized his mistake, and returned to his father. The elder son lived a law-abiding life, but ended up outside the father’s house, refusing to attend the feast his father prepared.

Which of these two sons can we compare to Saul, who later became the apostle Paul? Many of us will quickly answer, “the younger son.” Paul lived a wayward life and then experienced a total conversion to the ways of God, right? Not really. You see, Paul never lived a wayward life? Right from his youth he lived a strict religious life. He wasn’t wayward at all. He was like the older brother in the parable of the Prodigal son who was always law-abiding and obedient to his father.

Paul’s conversion was not a change from a life of waywardness to a life of discipline. It was a conversion from one form of righteousness to another form of righteousness. The younger son in the parable needed a conversion of the unrighteous. He needed to change his ways and return to the father. The elder son needed a conversion of the righteous, from self-righteousness to true righteousness in Christ or, as Paul describes it in today’s second reading, “not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but one that comes through faith in Christ”. This is the kind of conversion that Paul had. Which goes to show us that, whether we judge ourselves to be righteous or unrighteous, we all need conversion.

Which is better, the self-righteousness of the law-abiding Pharisees who were going to stone the woman caught in adultery, or the righteousness of the woman who changed her ways after her encounter with Christ? We all know the answer of course. Jesus was harder on the self-righteous Pharisees than he was on the tax-collectors and prostitutes. Both the Pharisees and the woman have gone astray and wandered from the path of true righteousness. But whereas it is easy for sinners to recognize their sinfulness and return to God, it is often difficult for the self-righteous to recognize that they too are in error. This is because when they compare themselves with others they say, “I am not doing too badly, after all. I am better than most people.”

How can we tell when we are entangled in the sinister web of self-righteousness? The test is pretty simple: How tolerant are we of those we perceive as wrong? Are we an easy person to live with? Christ wasn’t a difficult person to live with at all. But look at the stone-wielding Pharisees in today’s gospel. Remember the older brother last Sunday. He was so intolerant of his “sinful” junior brother that he walked out on him. Look at the life of St. Paul before his conversion. He was so intolerant of those who had become Christians, that he was prepared to kill them. He persecuted and killed Christians whom, he believed, were messing up the good, old religion of their ancestors. But when he converted to Christ, he realized that the sign of true zeal for the faith is readiness to die for one’s beliefs, not readiness to kill for them.

From then on Paul’s goal changed. His self-righteousness became true righteousness. And his intolerance had become compassion and mercy. Paul, the killer of Christians, would one day gave his life to die as a Christian. He had attained his life’s goal to suffer and die with Christ. This, my friends, is true righteousness. It is the righteousness to which Christ was inviting the Pharisees in today’s gospel, when he asked them to “think first, before casting the first stone”. It is the righteousness to which he invites us all. And so we pray:

Lord, when I am wrong, make me willing to change.
And when I am right, make me easy to live with.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)