Saturday, April 02, 2022

Escaping Our Enclosures

5th Sunday in Lent (C)

Readings: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 125 (126); Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11

Picture: cc Charlie Marshall

My dear friends, when was the last time you visited a zoo? As you know, back in the day, zoo animals were kept in cages. Then, gradually, this began to change. Cruel cages were replaced with more comfortable enclosures, crude iron bars with less obvious barriers. Nowadays, enclosures are even arranged to resemble the animals’ natural habitat. Which makes me wonder what would happen, if animals kept in such enclosures were suddenly set free. Will they escape, or will they prefer to remain in their cosy surroundings? Do they even know or care that they are being held captive?

I ask these questions, because our scriptures today are filled with people in captivity of one kind or another. In the first reading, people stranded in a foreign land receive a  reassuring promise from God. Just as, in the past, God rescued their ancestors from slavery in Egypt, by making a way through the waters of the Red Sea, so does God now promise to blaze a path for them through the wilderness of exile, allowing them to eventually return safely home.

In the gospel too, we find people in captivity, people in need of rescue. The most obvious of whom is that poor woman caught in the very act of committing adultery. Like a caged animal, this unnamed woman is held captive not just by her own sin, but also by the callous indifference and cruel condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees. Thankfully, with great tenderness and compassion, Jesus sets her free. Has no one condemned you?… Neither do I condemn you… go away, and do not sin any more.

But, like that woman, her accusers are captives too. Except that their captivity is far less obvious, and their enclosure much more comfortable. So that, in order for them to be set free, a different approach is needed. In contrast to the tenderness shown to the woman, towards her accusers, the Lord responds first with a firm refusal to engage them on their terms. Instead, he simply writes on the ground with his finger. Then he finally disrupts their devious plans with an incisive comment: If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.

We may recall that this approach resembles what the apostle Paul experienced on the road to Damascus, when he heard the crucified and risen Christ ask him, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? Setting him free from his obsession with the Law, and enabling him to start running the race of faith, trying to capture the prize for which Christ Jesus captured him. 

And what about us, our families and communities, our church and society? In what ways are we also being held captive by sinful habits of one kind or another? How is Christ caring for us, not just by showing us tenderness and compassion, but also by sometimes choosing to disrupt our well-laid plans?

Sisters and brothers, as with zoo animals, cosy enclosures can keep us captive even more effectively than cruel cages. How does Christ wish to set us free from them all today?

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