Tuesday of the Fifth Week of Lent
April 5, 2011
Num 21:4-9; Jn 8:21-30
The liturgies for the Fifth Week of Lent offer us some rich biblical stories. Yesterday, it was the story of Susanna who is falsely accused and is saved by Daniel. Tomorrow, it will be the story of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, the three servants who refuse to violate their consciences in service to King Nebuchadnezzar.
With readings like these, we see how the liturgy is preparing us for the drama of Holy Week. Jesus’ passion and death are made poignant, in part, because He is falsely accused and He will not subject His kingship to Pilate’s temporal authority.
Today’s first reading may not be as riveting as Susanna’s story or as gripping as the story of the three principled servants of God. However, the passage from the Book of Numbers today is getting us ready to wrestle with one of the great mysteries of the Christian faith.
The text recalls for us the trials and tribulations of the Israelites in the desert. The sacred author describes a situation in which the Chosen People are now questioning those who delivered them from slavery in Egypt: God and Moses. The dissatisfaction is pointed and direct: “Why have you brought us up from Egypt to die in the desert, where there is no food or water? We are disgusted with this wretched food!” (Num 21:5)
After being bitten by seraph serpents, the Israelites realize their sin in complaining against the Lord and Moses. (cf. Num 21:7) As He did in the Exodus, the Lord once more takes action on behalf of His people. This time, He instructs Moses to mount a seraph on a pole so that those who are bitten may look at it and be healed. (cf. Num 21:8) The Lord’s fix works. Death is no more.
It’s clear that we should see in this passage a foreshadowing of the Cross. For our reflection today, I would like to try an approach suggested by the gospel of this past Sunday. When the woman caught in adultery comes face to face with Jesus, she receives from the Lord what was denied her by the crowd: a justice and a mercy. Christ does not apply the Mosaic law which calls for her death by stoning. Instead, He says to the woman, “Go and from now on do not sin anymore.” (Jn 8:11)
Jesus does not gloss over or soft-pedal the woman’s sin. He expressly warns her to refrain from this kind of conduct in the future. In his encyclical Dives in Misericordia (1980), Pope John Paul II puts it this way: Christ suffers on the Cross because of the sins of humanity. This constitutes a superabundance of justice, the pontiff asserts. (7) Jesus also refuses to condemn the adulterous woman. He extends to her a mercy which completes justice. The Pope in his encyclical characterizes the Cross as the radical revelation of mercy. (8)
The value of the Cross impacts all of history; we should be very clear about that. It is but a single day in Jesus’ earthly ministry, however. As we see in Christ’s encounter with the adulterous woman, the meanings of the Cross – justice and mercy – are at work all the time. So, too, is forgiveness at work all the time. Whether it’s in the parables He tells or in the miracles He works, forgiveness is all over Jesus’ ministry. We can’t disassociate Jesus from forgiveness. And neither can we disassociate the Cross from forgiveness.
To say “I accept the Cross” means that I accept the two sidedness of forgiveness – its justice and its mercy. The first is usually not in question. I say to myself and to others who would care to listen: I’m sure that I have been offended, that I have been wronged, and that my rights have been violated. My adversary needs to make this up to me, too. And I will not rest until he does. The second doesn’t come as easily. Again, I say to myself and those who would care to listen: Why should I have to exhibit a clemency and leniency? Can’t he see the trouble this has caused me? Give me justice, I say. But heaven forbid I should exercise mercy!
Twice this Lent, the liturgy has been the occasion for hearing the story of the prodigal son in Saint Luke’s Gospel. As you know, it is often referred to as the parable of the merciful father. While the son is still at a distance, the father runs to him, embraces him and kisses him. (cf. Lk 15:20) And not only does the father do this for the younger son, he also does it for the older son. When the older son refuses to enter the father’s house during the welcome home party, the father comes out and pleads with him. (cf. Lk 15:28) Mercy is dispensed liberally and to all who need it.
Divine mercy is showered upon us in the Sacrament of Penance. As we have been treated this way by Christ, so must we endeavor to bear this virtue in our interactions with others. The Son Who is lifted high upon the Cross lifts our burden of sin. Can we not mercifully untie someone else’s yoke in gratitude for the gift we have received?
In both the Benedictus and the Magnificat, we invoke the Lord’s promise of mercy to our fathers today. At this Eucharist now, may the prayer on our lips be that the Lord’s grace come mercifully to us all.
Msgr Robert Batule