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Fifth Sunday of Lent

March 13, 2016
Reflection by Professor Thomas Groome
Director, Church in the 21st Century Center

Thomas Groome, Professor of Theology and Religious Education at Boston College, is completing his fortieth year of teaching at BC. He also serves as Director of BC's Church in the 21st Century Center. Tom is widely recognized as one of the leading Catholic religious educators in the world and is known for his commitment to integrating faith with the everyday of life. One of his many widely read books is What Makes us Catholic: Gifts for Life (Harper Collins).  

Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent:
Isaiah 43: 16-21
Philippians 3: 8-14
John 8: 1-11 

Forgive us our Trespasses as . . .

In an amazing book entitled The Sunflower, Simon Wiesenthal, the renowned Holocaust survivor and Nazi hunter, poses one of life’s ultimate questions – to forgive wrongs or not. He tells a true story of when he was a prisoner in a concentration camp and being requested by a young dying Nazi soldier for “a Jew’s forgiveness” for a terrible crime he had committed.  Though Wiesenthal walked away without responding, he poses the question to all of us “what would you have done?”  

Typically our wrongs – inflicted or endured – are not remotely comparable to the suffering of the Jews in Nazi concentration camps and other instances of such dreadful evil. Yet the journey of life brings hurts and heartbreaks to everyone and we can all inflict our own share. Should we forgive and ask forgiveness? And what does forgiveness mean? Can there be forgiveness without justice or without repentance of the wrong? The Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa insisted first on an admission of guilt by the perpetrators – as if the truth is necessary before there can be reconciliation.

Pause and Reflect

  • Is there someone in your life that needs your forgiveness?  What to do?
  • Is there someone from whom you need to ask forgiveness?  What to do?

Jesus the Radical Forgiver

Read again today’s Gospel, John 8: 1-11 – the woman caught in adultery.

That the scribes and Pharisees bring to Jesus “a woman caught in the very act of committing adultery” is really a trap to destroy him. Mosaic law decreed that she should be stoned to death and likewise her male partner (see Deuteronomy 22:22 ff; why didn’t they bring the man to Jesus too?).  However, the Romans had forbidden such executions based on Mosaic law. So Jesus’s choice is to reject Torah or Roman authority; either could get him killed.


This text is a late insert in the Gospel of John, not appearing in manuscripts until the 3rd century.  One theory among scholars is that it was left out because Jesus was too lenient on the woman. After his invitation “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” her accusers walk away – they have some integrity at least – “beginning with the elders.” Then Jesus forgives her and urges that she “go and sin no more.”

What does Jesus’ forgiving a wrong considered in this context as worthy of execution mean for those who claim to be his disciples?  Well, apparently, the one “without sin” among us would be entitled to throw the first stone; any qualifiers? Presuming none, we recall that Jesus would have us pray, “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Then on the cross, he continued his radical model of forgiveness. “Father forgive them, they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34).

Well, this is surely inspiring of Jesus, but what of us who follow so far behind? To say to someone who has been deeply hurt, “you should forgive” likely commits a new violence against them. It is ordering them to perform a miracle simply by choice. Also, as the symposium of notable voices at the end of Wiesenthal’s book attests, whether or not he should forgive the dying Nazi soldier is very debatable (what gives him the right to speak for all Jews, etc.).

Reflect and Decide

  • What does the radical example of Jesus suggest by way of forgiveness in your life? 
  • Will you forgive or ask forgiveness of wrongs?  Which ones?  Under what conditions – if any?

Impossible but ...

For would be disciples, Jesus poses a nigh impossible ideal – to be ever ready to forgive, why, to love even enemies. The greatest saints have admitted that they fell far short. However, that we be without fault ourselves before condemning others is also beyond our human reach. Likewise, that our being forgiven depends on our measure of forgiving, counsels as much generosity as we can muster. And it is true that the heart which carries hatred may hurt itself the most.  

It is surely significant that after the petition regarding forgiveness, the Lord’s Prayer adds “deliver us from evil.” Ultimately, it is only by God’s grace that we can be delivered both from the wrongs we do to others and that are done to us. Let us pray for the grace!

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