Some of you older people may remember Easy Ed MacCauley who played for the Celtics in the 50s. Red Auerbach traded the popular, established veteran Easy Ed to the St. Louis Hawks for a skinny, unknown kid right out of college named Bill Russell. Ed MacCauley is the youngest player ever elected into the basketball hall of fame. But I bet that most of the few of you who knew of Ed MacCauley are not aware the he went on to become a permanent deacon in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. He is also the co-author with Msgr Friedl of a classic book on how to write effective homilies called Homilies Alive. Over the past few years he has helped to run a web site of the same name that is a very popular site for homilists. As I was doing my preparation for today's homily I visited that site for the first time in few months and was dismayed to read the Deacon Ed has been diagnosed with Alzheimer disease. I was struck especially by that announcement because today's readings are about forgetfulness!
In the first reading God speaks through the prophet Isaiah to the people of Israel as they return home from 70 years of exile in Babylon. Isaiah exhorts them to forget the imprisonment and humiliation of their exile as well as their pride and arrogance based on their former glory as the chosen of God to experience God's making something new in their return home.
St. Paul writes to the Philippians exclaiming that he has forgotten, put behind him, all that he has accomplished or suffered in the past, counting it all as rubbish as he focuses on the race ahead towards Christ.
And in few sentences, the Gospel story tells a compelling human tale of conflict, forgiveness, and forgetfulness. This is truly an amazing story. We are not sure of its origins. The earliest manuscripts of John's Gospel do not have this story in them, and an early manuscript of Luke's gospel has the passage near the end of Chapter 21. Early in the morning the scribes and the Pharisees drag a woman who was caught in the act of adultery before Jesus. They are sure they have constructed a trap from which Jesus cannot escape. They have put Jesus between the rock of Moses' law and the hard place of Roman law. Mosaic law states that a man and a woman caught in adultery are to be put to death. Roman law said that the Jews could not condemn to death and execute anyone. That right was reserved for the Romans. If Jesus said that they should obey Roman law then Jesus could be condemned to the Jews for rejecting Moses; if he said that they should obey Mosaic law and put the woman to death, then they could turn him into the Romans for rejecting Roman law.
So what does Jesus do? He does what he always does: he focused attention on the humans involved in the situation. First he defuses what must have been the bloodthirsty crowd mentality of the moment by calmly bending down and writing in the dirt. This unknown writing has probably generated more speculation and reflection than any other unknown writing in history. But as I read all these speculations, I would suggest that most of them can be dismissed as unlikely. One commentator speculated that Jesus was rewriting Mosaic law to say that the man should be included in the death sentence. Of course that was not it because the law already said that. Others suggest that Jesus was writing the sins of those who were standing there with stones ready to kill this woman. I would suggest that this is not like Jesus; he was not one to embarrass anyone, even those who were sinners. He was just as interested in inviting the scribes and the Pharisees into the kingdom of God as the woman standing before him.
The best comment that I found on what Jesus was doing was one that took some poetic license saying: As Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John drew close to read what Jesus had written, he deliberately wiped the ground clean, making sure that it was forgotten. In all Jesus' encounters with the scribes and the Pharisees and the Sadducees, he consistently reveals to all that what God is most interested in is the human beings involved. All the rituals and laws and teachings are given for the service of humans, not the other way around.
Jesus is surrounded by sinners. The woman has committed a very serious sin that strikes at the heart of that most precious human relationship of marriage. The scribes and the Pharisees have committed the equally serious sin of trying to use a woman as a expendable pawn in their game of entrapment. Jesus does not point his finger at any of them, nor does he condone any of their sins. He brings their respective humanity into sharp focus. The accusers are given the chance to make a human decision for mercy or for blind justice. They choose neither and slink away. He gives the woman a chance to make a human decision to repent of her actions. She accepts and hears those words of forgiveness and encouragement.
I said at the start that all of today's reading are about forgetfulness. In the first and Gospel readings we are reminded that God forgets our sins. God is always inviting us to repent, that is, turn around and start anew. But God's forgetfulness of our sins is not the only forgetfulness we hear about. We are called on to forget our past success and accomplishments. Many self help books tell us that up through our late 20s we tend to learn from our successes but after that we only learn from our failures. The prophets in the Hebrew Scriptures again and again challenge the people of Israel to stop placing their confidence and even arrogance in the glory of former years. They were to forget all the sacrifices and the victories and even the great signs that God had worked for them, and instead start taking care of the widows and orphans and aliens in their midst today. It is the remembrance of all their prayers and sacrifices and knowledge of the law that makes the scribes and the Pharisees feel entitled to judge the woman. Perhaps that is what Jesus wiped clean from the dirt. As Paul says, all of that is counted as rubbish. What is important is acting out of love in the present moment.
We too are called to forget our past accomplishments lest we think that they earn us God's love or the right to pronounce judgment on others. We are called to remember that God forgets our sins and constantly calls us to repentance. In a few short minutes we will join in praying that, as we do every week when we say, “Lord I am not worthy to receive you.” This is our prayer that counts all we have done and been as rubbish. Some people stop there though, and think that somehow the Church wants to make everyone feel small and unimportant. But we continue, “Only say the word and I shall be healed.”. God has spoken that word, that word who is The Word. A word that is a word of forgiveness and love that makes us eminently worthy to receive him. Not because of anything that we have done or been but because God, in the first place, love us. We are lovable because we have been so loved. We are worthy and we are righteous but not because of what we have done or been. We have been made worthy because of the “righteousness which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God”. And so is everyone else: the woman accused, the scribes, the Pharisees in our lives. Just as the people in today's Gospel story, we are called to respond in true human fashion to that word. We are called to repent, and as the Body of Christ, we are called to offer that word of forgiveness and forgetfulness to every human that we meet.