Lent 05, Year C

My offenses truly I know them (Ps. 51:5)

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) conducted two weeks ago in Marin County, California, its operation dubbed “Return to Sender” (cf. [1]and [2]). According to an ICE report, contested by opponents, agents arrested 65 people and deported 23 (cf. [3] and [4]). The presumed undocumented immigrants were caught red-handed, so to speak—in more or less the same manner that the woman in this Sunday’s gospel was caught in the very act of committing adultery.

And it has been suggested that discrimination played a part in these raids, for apparently they targeted only the Hispanic community [5]. Could discrimination be alleged likewise against the scribes and Pharisees, given that they brought only the woman and not her adulterer accomplice also? Lev. 20:10 and Dt. 22:22 impose the death penalty on both the adulteress and the adulterer. But, then, the accusers of the woman, especially the elders among them, could borrow from the two elders’ deposition in the case of the beautiful and God-fearing Susanna and say, “The man we could not hold, because he was stronger than we; he opened the doors and ran off” (Dan. 13:39).

Anyway, if zeal for either secular or religious law is adulterated with prejudice or with something like the motive attributed by the evangelist to the scribes and Pharisees—the intent to test Jesus so that a charge could be brought against him—would not the accusers then be worse adulterers? And would it not behoove them really, therefore, to leave one by one, beginning with the elders?

Authentic zeal, in my view, does not bear with impure intention. I have heard it said that the greatest treason is to do the right thing for the wrong reason. I do not believe such duplicity can be tolerated by Vincentian simplicity that in part means the authencity that young people today find attractive (cf. what Father Robert P. Maloney, C.M., says about simplicity in The Way of Vincent de Paul). Nor do I think it useful for anyone to try to integrate the noble with the ignoble—true integration, according to Father Maloney also, is another meaning that simplicity has—because to try to do so would result in the kind of loss that one suffers when one pours new wine into old wineskins.

It will be better that one neither remembers the events of the past nor considers the things of long ago. It will be better for one to see the new thing the Lord is doing, something that is springing forth and, therefore, already perceivable. Genuine integration becomes attainable only to the extent that one forgets the old that lies behind and strains forward to the new that lies ahead.

Jesus gave the accused woman the opportunity to forget what lay behind and to strain forward to what lay ahead when he told her: “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” It appears to me that the old posits in no uncertain terms the dilemma, “Either justice or mercy!” The new, on the other hand, demonstrates calmly to the accused that justice and mercy interpenetrate and persuades wisely the accusers that only he who is without sin may throw the first stone. The new does not set a net or traps either for anyone along anyone’s path.

Another person who was granted the opportunity to free himself from the net set up by the father of lies—the same one who knows a lot because he is old more than because he is the devil—is that man of good reputation whose confession Vincent de Paul heard. The peasant felt himself to be new, I think, and so showed it, when he made it known that he would have been damned had he not made a general confession of those grave sins he had been hiding because of shame. Emerging into the light of truth with a consciousness of sin, this poor man was set free.

It is to be hoped that, upon recovering the sense or consciousness of sin, everyone—the accused as well as the accusers, the wanted as well as the police—will be set free and will contribute to the restoration of full communion, civil or ecclesial (cf. Sacramentum Caritatis 20). This communion, I suppose, does not need to choose between justice and mercy nor does it allow that to the sender be returned something—or better, somebody.