Author: Fr. Michael Byron
April 07, 2019

Somewhere over the course of the past decade or so I have entered a phase of life in which I’ve become vaguely aware that I am fearful of going to the doctor’s office for my annual physical.  It’s not because I’m unwell—at least I don’t think I am.  And it’s not because my doctor is unkind.  He was my college roommate and remains a great friend.  I think it’s a combination of two things.  One is that I am aging, and all the bodily functions that I always used to just never even think about are things that I now do:  blood pressure, eyesight, muscle tone, skin health.

The other is that, because he cares about me, my doctor is gently but firmly honest with me in telling me how I need to change some habits of life in order to maintain my well-being:  Things like diet, and exercise and, yes, spiritual activity.  I have always appreciated that my doctor is firmly convinced that prayer is a vital dimension of good holistic health, and I know that he follows his own advice that way.  

So the fear comes in what my routine tests may reveal about how I’m not being honest with myself about all this, and in having to discover the bare truth about how I’m doing…truth that I usually have the luxury of not having to pay attention to.  There’s a reason for all that good medical advice, after all.  Eventually your body will convict you if you haven’t followed it.  And let’s not even start in on dental health…

Fear, of course, is a terrible motive for taking care of yourself.  And if Jesus in his teaching said anything more often than not it was to command us not to be afraid.  But Jesus was speaking about God—that we ought never to fear having been left alone or uncared for in any circumstances, no matter how threatening—whether in storms, or in human conflicts, or in spiritual isolation, or even in the face of death.  He was not telling us to not fear sin and its effects.  In fact Jesus had a very healthy respect for the destruction that sin and evil are capable of doing in this world, at least when we try to fight against them on our own power alone.  And Jesus had to be very well aware that the typical reaction of human beings to fear is to ignore or to deny the threat.  (think climate change here…)  I fear the doctor’s office each year because it’s the one time that ignoring and denying is not part of the conversation.  He won’t renew my cholesterol pills unless I show up to hear what he has to say about me and the state of my health and my behaviors.  Brutal honesty can be a bit scary.  But it’s also the way to healing.  The only way, in fact.  In today’s gospel story form St. John, we are confronted with two sides of this need for honesty.

On one hand we have this woman who is discovered in the very act of adultery—presumably with her partner, although curiously he is never mentioned.  We assume that all this was meant to be secret, but when the light of truth came in to play she was suddenly on death row at the hands of a self-righteous group of religious professionals.  An angry mob of theologians.  (Imagine that!)  The Pharisees and the scribes were crowing about how much truth and transparency had vindicated them, and they requested Jesus’ endorsement of all that.  She must have been terrified.

And Jesus’ response is on the other hand to say, “Well, while we’re on the topic of truth and transparency, let’s shine that light in the other direction, as well.  If we are all about honesty and righteousness here, let’s find out who’s the one without sin.”  And suddenly all that exposure and truth starts to look very different to the crowd.  Quickly they aren’t so interested in honesty, and it is their fear that drives them away, the fear of being exposed by the very same law that they were happy to use in accusing this woman.  Suddenly they aren’t so interested in what Jesus has to say.

Lent is a season for honesty, for truth-telling, for open examination of how things are going—in our world, in our country, in our parish, in our home, and in our hearts.  But it begins with the heart, and moves out from there.  We have no gospel right to impose a judgement upon others that we have not first been willing to be subject to ourselves.  Yes, that can be a cause for a certain kind of fear or hesitancy in us—or a temptation toward denial—but if we can be stronger than that, if we can be simply honest and aware that the truth will not kill us but will instead make us more whole, more holy, more close to God and to one another, this can only be for our good.  Jesus in the gospel simply called out the truth—not from one, but from everybody.

An annual physical—and an annual season of reflection on who and how we are together—can keep us away from the things that truly threaten us, especially when we are tempted to ignore them.  

In these last days of Lent, may we pray to be courageous enough to confront the truth of who we are; beloved by God, never alone, but ever in need of a hard look in the mirror, and a confession of sin, a visit to the doctor.  Our Eucharist makes us strong to do all that.


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