5th Sunday of Lent (C)
There is a common frustration people experience at some point in their Christian journey. They know they are a sinner. They confess their sins and receive God’s forgiveness. They strive to live a more holy life, but… they keep sinning. Why? they cry out. Why, if I’ve given myself to Christ, do I keep doing these things I know I shouldn’t be doing?
For anyone experiencing frustration with their sins, St. Paul offers words of wisdom. But let’s first look at our gospel. This Sunday’s gospel reading is a tale of forgiveness. A woman is brought before Jesus who has been caught in the very act of adultery. She is guilty as guilty can be. The scribes and Pharisees say that according to the law of Moses she should be stoned. They want to know what Jesus has to say.
Jesus says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn 8:7). The people in the crowd, including the self-righteous Pharisees, know that none of them is sinless and so they walk away, leaving Jesus alone with the woman. Jesus asks her, “Has no one condemned you?”
She replies, “No one, sir.”
Then Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you.” Then he tells her, “Go, and from now on do not sin any more” (Jn 8:11).
It is a beautiful tale of mercy and forgiveness. But then there is that last instruction… We all want to receive God’s mercy, but can we follow through with Christ’s parting instruction to “sin no more?” Most of us, if we are being honest, would say no — not because we don’t want to stop sinning, but because we are aware of our weakness. If this describes you, fear not — you are in the company of saints like Paul.
“I do not do the good that I want”
Before his conversion, St. Paul was a zealous Pharisee, like the ones who brought the adulterous woman before Jesus. After his conversion, he was just as zealous for Christ. Yet he continued to struggle with sin.
He speaks frankly about this in his letter to the Romans. “What I do, I do not understand. For I do not do what I want, but I do what I hate” (Rom 7:15). He continues:
For I do not do the good I want, but I do the evil I do not want. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells in me. So, then, I discover the principle that when I want to do right, evil is at hand. For I take delight in the law of God, in my inner self, but I see in my members another principle at war with the law of my mind, taking me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Miserable one that I am! Who will deliver me from this mortal body? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Therefore, I myself, with my mind, serve the law of God but, with my flesh, the law of sin.Rom 7:19-25
Paul accurately sums up the feelings of so many Christians — I want to do good, but I still have sinful desires. The spirit is willing but the flesh is weak!
An important note: this is not because our “flesh” is evil. There have been heretical sects in the past that believed spiritual things such as our souls, were good, while the physical world, including our bodies, was evil. But this has never been the Catholic view.
Human beings are body and soul creatures, and both body and soul are fundamentally good. But a consequence of the Fall (that first rebellion against God) is concupiscence, or the tendency toward evil. We are still good, just broken. Our desires, which are meant for good, have become disordered, and so need to be brought into right order by our reason, in accord with God’s will.
This explains the common experience of wanting to do what we know is right, but being thwarted by our lesser passions. It’s a struggle. Yet St. Paul ends this passage by saying, Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord. Why does Paul thank God after complaining about how he keeps doing the sin he doesn’t want to do? Because Paul knows that his salvation comes from Christ, not from his own worthiness. And this is good news.
The Righteousness from God
St. Paul explains more in this Sunday’s second reading from his letter to the Philippians.
I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish…Phil 3:8
St. Paul doesn’t mince words here. The Greek word politely translated as “rubbish” is actually σκύβαλα (skubala), which is a crude term for human excrement. St. Paul is saying that Jesus Christ is so good, everything else is like a giant, steaming pile of skubala by comparison.
Why does Paul consider Christ so good? Okay, we know he is the divine Son of God. We know he died for our sins. We know objectively that he is good. But that’s not what I mean. Paul isn’t talking about the goodness of Christ in an abstract way here. Paul says that Christ is so good that he’d rather lose everything in the world than to lose Christ. When Paul says Jesus is good, it’s personal. Paul’s relationship with Christ is good for him. The same is true for us.
St. Paul explains more:
…I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God…Phil 3:8-9
Paul speaks of being “found in” Christ. In other words, Paul is now a part of Christ. This is key, because Paul knows he doesn’t have any righteousness of his own. Paul knows that if he has to depend on his own righteousness to be saved, it’s never going to happen. He’s not good enough. Nobody is good enough.
Before his conversion, Paul (Saul) was the Pharisee’s Pharisee. He knew the law of Moses and he followed it to a tee. If anyone could have been saved by the law, it was him. But even following the law perfectly wouldn’t make him as holy as God. To be divinely righteous is humanly impossible.
And this is why Paul rejoices. In Christ, Paul no longer bears the impossible burden of having to be “righteous enough” because as a member of the Body of Christ he now participates in God’s righteousness; “that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God.”
In Pursuit of the Prize
Our union with Christ gives us a share in his righteousness which is not fully achieved in this life, but is the goal of our faith.
It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus… forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.Phil 3:12-14
When he writes of “forgetting what lies behind” he is speaking of his former sins. When he writes of “straining forward to what lies ahead” he is talking about the perfect union we will have with Christ in heaven.
This is the life of the Christian; always turning away from our sins and turning toward God. That’s what repentance is. Our job is not to rely on our own goodness. If we could do that, we wouldn’t need Jesus. The work of the Christian is to strive after holiness, relying on Christ to lead us to our goal. It is a prize we can be sure of possessing one day, because Christ has already taken possession of us. We just need to stay in the race.
The One Who is Without Sin
In short, our salvation is not our work. It is Christ’s work that we are privileged to cooperate with. Jesus does the heavy lifting. We just have to be willing participants in his grace.
When the crowd call for the adulterous woman to be stoned, Jesus says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn 8:7). Everyone leaves except for one person. Jesus alone remains with her; Jesus is the one without sin.
Jesus has the right to cast the first stone, but he doesn’t. Instead, he tells the woman, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and from now on do no sin any more” (Jn 8:11).
Did this woman never commit another single sin for her entire life? It’s unlikely, given the weakness of our fallen nature. But becoming a saint doesn’t mean never sinning; it means trusting in Christ’s mercy. It means bringing our sins to the One Without Sin and the only one who can free us from our sin.
We don’t have to be strong enough to conquer sin on our own. We just have to be humble enough to put our faith in Christ who conquers it for us.