Homily for the Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year C.
One of the things we try to work on in the seminary, in preparation for becoming priests, is what we call “fraternal correction.” If we notice a behavior that is unbecoming of a future priest, we try to sit down with our fellow seminarian and, in all charity, bring this to his attention. Sometimes you find yourself on the giving side of this, sometimes on the receiving. And both are difficult. It takes courage to give fraternal correction and it takes humility to receive it. But this is good preparation for becoming a priest. Part of being a good spiritual father is offering correction at times. You also find yourself at times on the receiving end of correction as a priest. And even if people are uncharitable or unreasonable in what they say to you, as a priest you are called not to take this personally, but to respond with as much kindness and understanding as you possibly can.
Probably the greatest challenge in giving and receiving fraternal correction is learning to make a distinction between a person’s actions and a person’s value or dignity as a human being. This distinction was never more beautifully described than in the words of St. John Paul II at World Youth Day in 2002. “We are not the sum of our weaknesses and failures,” St. John Paul II said, “we are the sum of the Father’s love for us and our real capacity to become the image of his Son.” When we correct someone, we have to find a way of communicating to them that, although we condemn the decision they are making, we do not condemn them. We have to find a way of telling them that they are not the sum of their bad decisions, but of God’s love for them. And, moreover, that it is preciously because God loves them, and because they have such great value and dignity in His eyes, that we condemn their sin, because it is their sin which is preventing them from fully receiving the love God has for them.
This is such an important message to communicate, but it is a message which is so hard for people to hear. We are in the habit of equating our value and dignity as persons to our actions. And, so, if someone judges our actions, they are judging us. That’s why we often respond so poorly when people say something about how we are acting or the way we are thinking. Even if what they are saying is true, we can’t accept it, because in our eyes it diminishes our value or dignity. Only someone who has come to believe in the love God has for them, and who knows that that love is not diminished by our weaknesses and failures, can receive with patience and humility what other people say about the decisions we make, whether what they say is true or not.
As people who are deeply afraid of being judged by others, we take comfort in Jesus’ words in our gospel: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” But as people who are deeply afraid of being judged by others, we probably gloss over Jesus’ final words in our gospel: “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” Jesus does not condemn the woman. He upholds her value and dignity. But He does condemn her sin and calls her to conversion. “Do not sin any more.” These are Jesus’ final words, and they are just as important, if not more important, than His initial words.
Now is the time of conversion, and so Jesus shows her mercy. But the time of conversion will eventually come to an end. If the woman returns to her sin, and if she continues obstinately in it without remorse, then she will condemn herself in the end. Jesus is even more concerned that this woman not lose eternal life, than He is that she loses her earthly life. And the same is true for us. Jesus says to us, as He said to the woman: “I do not condemn you. But I do condemn your sin. I condemn your sin because I love you and do not want to lose you. If you remain obstinately in your sin, and do not change your ways, I will lose you. Do not let me lose you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
Friends, we need to get better at both giving and receiving correction. But receiving correction is the first thing to work on. Often, we don’t give correction because we are afraid that it will not be received well. To receive correction well—whether from God, a priest, our spouse, our siblings, our coworkers, or our friends—we need to make this distinction between the decisions we make and our value and dignity as human beings. We need to recognize that our value and dignity is firmly rooted in God’s love for us, and so is safe and secure even if we sin. Then, if we fall into sin, and someone points this out to us, we won’t blow up at them, or shut them out of our lives, but we can have true remorse and turn to God for mercy, confident that our weaknesses and failures have not diminished our value and dignity in His eyes. The possibility of reconciliation, and of civil discourse in families and communities, depends on this ability to make a distinction between our decisions and our fundamental value and dignity. It therefore depends on our faith in the love God has for us, the love which He showed the woman in the gospel.
So how do we work on this? How do we work on receiving correction well? In his book The Spiritual Exercises, St. Ignatius of Loyola makes a recommendation for how to begin any time of personal prayer. He says that we should begin by pausing for the length of an Our Father and imagine how God looks upon us. And God, of course, looks upon us with love, as He did the woman in the gospel. If we spent a minute each day imagining how God looks upon us, how He looks upon us with love, we would grow tremendously in our ability to receive fraternal correction with patience and humility. What people say about us, whether or true or not, would no longer devastate or destroy us. Instead, if it is true, we would take what they say to heart, confident in the Lord’s love for us. And if it is not true, we would turn the other cheek, confident in the Lord’s love for them.
“Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” Let’s be both comforted and challenged by these words today. Let us take them to heart. And let’s try to live by them in our interactions with others. Amen.