By Msgr. Joseph P. Calise
Sometimes God works in comforting ways. While I was Rector-Principal at Cathedral Prep the administration often had to face the dilemma of students needing to be removed for academic reasons.
Unfortunately, these were often students who posed no disciplinary problems and might have evidenced at least a willingness to consider a vocation to the priesthood but who simply found the academic responsibilities too burdening.
On occasion, I would make the decision with the support of the rest of the administration to allow a student to repeat a year, a solution which is not always comfortable in a comparatively small school. One student in particular deserved this opportunity. I gave him the option with the explanation that he needed to discuss it with his parents.
They agreed that Cathedral was the best place for him and, together, they made the choice for him to remain but repeat a year. I agreed it was the right choice but held that concern that it could be very uncomfortable to watch your classmates move on as you, personally, began again.
One day I overheard him talking to another student and explaining how grateful he was that he had been given a second chance and how he intended to do better.
My concerns were greatly alleviated.
Today’s Gospel is the Gospel of the second chance. The woman in the Gospel was caught in the act of adultery; there was no doubt about her guilt. From a purely legal point of view, the Pharisees and Scribes were demanding what the law required.
Their mistake, of course, was asking Jesus to simply accept their law and its consequences with no room for pity, forgiveness or love. Jesus never pretends to say that the act was not immoral, nor does He profess her innocent. He calls it a “sin” and instructs her clearly to “sin no more.” Rather, He invites those condemning her to look inside their own hearts before casting any stones.
In giving the woman a second chance, He also gives those condemning her a second chance, a chance to acknowledge the imperfection of human nature (hers and theirs) and act with compassion. Before answering them, the Gospel tells us that “Jesus bent down and began to write in the ground with His finger.”
Perhaps, he was stalling or formulating His response, but one interesting interpretation of the behavior is that Jesus may have been writing on the ground the seven deadly sins (pride, anger, greed, gluttony, lust, envy and sloth), knowing that each of the men standing there with a stone in his hand would be able to identify with at least one of these sins.
Seeing their own sinfulness might encourage them to understand the second chance Jesus was giving to the woman and also to acknowledge the chance being given to them.
As the Pharisees and Scribes begin to leave the scene, presumably dropping their rocks, Jesus is left alone with the woman and has all the rocks within His reach. He does not throw any, even though by the standard He set — the one without sin should throw the first stone — He could have. Jesus’ attitude toward the sinner was always to recognize the weakness inherent in human nature with sincere concern and to love the sinner while still offering the encouragement to “sin no more.”
All of us have been given many “second chances.” Each day is another chance to live the Gospel message better than the day before.
But like the Pharisees and Scribes we are also challenged to use that self-awareness to be more forgiving of others.
Readings for Fifth Sunday of Lent
Msgr. Calise is the pastor of Transfiguration-St. Stanislaus Kostka Parish, Maspeth.