We may not have adverted to it, but there's been a very clear pattern in our Scripture lessons over the last three weeks, especially. As usual, the first week of Lent we reflected on Jesus and the temptations in the desert. The second week on his transfiguration when God declared, "This is my Son, my beloved, in whom I am well pleased." But then on the third Sunday we began to hear, in a very powerful way, the message that is the most important one for us to absorb and really take into our mind, but most of all, into our spirit, to experience -- that God loves us. God loves us because God is love.
The pope, this year for Lent, published his book, The Name of God is Mercy. Compassion, love -- that's God. That love is poured forth upon us to draw us into existence, to be with us every instance of our lives, to heal us when we're broken, to comfort us when we need that. God is always loving us. Think back for a moment to the Gospel that third Sunday where Jesus compares God to a gardener, one who is taking care of the plants.
Fifth Sunday of Lent
The owner of the field said, "That particular plant has not given any fruit. Get rid of it." He was looking only for profit. He wanted a different plant that would bear fruit. But the gardener, who images God for us, says, "No. Let me tend it for another year, fertilize it, nurture it, and it will bear fruit." God loves that plant. That's a symbol of how God loves us. Last Sunday, you remember because it's such a vivid story about the two sons -- the one who goes off and squanders all his inheritance, comes back, ready to be a slave in his father's house.
Do you remember the image of the father going out looking for him? He must have been going every day because he loved him. He was just trying to draw him back. Finally, he sees him coming and he runs out to greet him. Then he calls for a feast to celebrate the return of his son who was dead, and was raised from the dead, and he's come back.
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Even the elder son who thought that it was such an injustice, the father reminds him, "Look son, everything I have is yours." That's true for every one of us. God is always looking to draw us back. Everything God has is given to us. God loves us. Today's lessons reinforce that very important teaching that we have to try, if we can, again, not just to hear about and to try to understand, but to experience that God loves me.
In that first lesson today, Isaiah says, "Do not dwell on the past or remember the things of old. Look, I am doing something new. Now it springs forth. Do you not see?" Then he makes this new thing, "Opening up a way in the wilderness, rivers in the desert, where there was barrenness there would be life." God loves everything into fullness of being. "The beasts of the land will honor me because I give water in the wilderness and rivers in the desert that my chosen people may drink. I formed this people for myself. They will proclaim my praise."
"God is making something new," Isaiah says. God's love is being poured forth upon those chosen people, but even now at every moment upon us. In today's Gospel lesson it's so clear that those religious leaders looking to trap Jesus, wanting him to stone to death this woman. Why was it only the woman? There's adultery, so of course, there was a man, but the woman was the one they were going to kill. Jesus knew this was a terrible injustice and he knew this woman was ready to be forgiven.
So he does in that very clever way, in fact, draw out a way to show that she is one who can be forgiven and is forgiven. "Let the one among you who is without sin throw the first stone." They were hypocrites, absolutely hypocrites, and Jesus called them for that. So they slink away one by one and the young woman is still there standing next to Jesus. "Is there no one to condemn you?" "No one, Lord." "Then neither will I. Go and sin no more."
This is an image of God's love that is very powerful. We're sinners, all of us and we know God forgives us, so we can easily identify with that woman. But in one of the commentaries I read in preparing to reflect on today's Scriptures, there's an image of this woman in a painting that I think we can carry with us. We had the image two Sundays ago of the gardener nurturing the plant. Then there's the image of the father running out to meet his son.
Here's an image that keeps the love of God very vivid in our imagination. The incident, this commentary says, has inspired a wide variety of Christian art. The most striking is Jesus and the Fallen Woman by Lucas Cranach. Now exhibited in The Hermitage in St. Petersburg, Russia. Here is the image: "At the front center of the painting are Jesus and the woman. The artist captures that moment when Jesus turns towards the accusers and challenges those without sin to cast a stone. His expression is stern, but troubled, and his right hand reaches out towards the woman.
Most remarkable, the woman is not bowed to the ground in front of Jesus as in much artwork, but is standing at his left. She's very young, with eyes closed, looking forlorn and resigned to her fate. Her head is inclined towards Jesus' shoulder, and her hand rests on his arm. Most striking, as one follows the lines of the painting, is that her right hand is entwined with the left hand of Jesus in a gesture of exquisite tenderness."
Can you picture that? It just seems like such a beautiful image. The hands of mercy are joined to the hands of a suffering person facing execution. That's God loving that woman, and that's the kind of love God has for every one of us. You need to try to take quiet time to experience this, to let ourselves realize that God loves me as tenderly as God loved that woman, as tenderly as God loved those two boys in the family, as tenderly as God loves every one of us. God loves us. As we experience that and come to be filled with gratitude and joy because God loves me and God is bringing me to a fullness of life, as we experience that, of course there should be some reaction.
First of all, we give thanks to God like St. Paul in today's passage from the letter to the church at Philippi, "Once I found Christ all those things that I might have considered as profit I reckoned as loss. Still more, everything seems to me as nothing compared with the knowledge of Christ Jesus and his love. For his sake I've let everything fall away and now consider all as rubbish if instead I may gain Christ. May I be found in him not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law but with the righteousness, the holiness that God gives to those who believe, those whom God loves."
Notice how Paul says at the end, "I press on until I conquer Christ Jesus, as I've already been conquered by him. I do not claim to have claimed the prize yet. I only say this: forgetting what is behind me, I race forward and run towards the goals, my eyes on the prize to which God has called us from above in Christ Jesus -- to that fullness of life in God, that fullness of love in joy and peace." We move toward that as we respond, as Paul did, in love to the gift of God's love to us.
So our first response as we experience this deep love of God for us is to thank God, to respond with love. But then also, as we realize how much God loves us and we are called to love God, in the Old Testament, the second commandment is this: Love your neighbor as yourself. We have to reach out with that love that we experience and begin to spread it in our world. Last Sunday, Paul said that we were to be ambassadors of Christ, bringing reconciliation in places that are torn apart and where there's hate, where there's resentment, where there's evil, it's our calling to be the ambassadors of reconciliation of love.
If we can each find some way in which we can do that, then we will be responding to God's love for us, not only with thanks and a spirit of joy and peace, but also helping to bring about the reconciliation and peace in our world that we so much need. We're called to this and as we experience God's love, I'm sure we will be able to do it better than we've ever done before, truly be the ambassadors of God's love, God's reconciliation, and God's peace.
[Homily given at St. Philomena Parish, Detroit, Mich. The transcripts of Bishop Gumbleton's homilies are posted weekly to NCRonline.org. Sign up here to receive an email alert when the latest homily is posted.]