5th Sunday of Lent (Year C)
First Reading: Isaiah 43:16-21 Second Reading: Philippians 3:8-14 Gospel Reading: John 8:1-11
“NEITHER DO I CONDEMN YOU. GO, AND FROM NOW ON DO NOT SIN ANY MORE.”
Once a mother sought from Napoleon the pardon of her young and only son, who was in the French army. The Emperor said it was the man's second offense, and justice demanded his death.
“I don't ask for justice,” said the mother. “I plead for mercy.”
“But,” said the Emperor, “he does not deserve mercy.”
“Sir,” cried the mother, “it would not be mercy if he deserved it, and mercy is all I ask.”
“Well then,” said the Emperor, “I will have mercy.” And her son was saved.
Yes, Jesus too gives us mercy. And we do not deserve it.
Today is the 5th Sunday of Lent, and it is the last Sunday before Holy week. A week from today, we will be celebrating Palm Sunday which ushers in Holy Week. Today, we take a little rest from the Gospel of St. Luke and look at an incident from the Gospel of St. John, but it, too, is something which is in the same thematic vein that we have been looking at this Lent, i.e. it continues to underline the radical nature of God’s compassion and forgiving love. All is not lost for the sinner, however big his/her offense may be. There is always mercy, forgiveness and conversion.
Today's Gospel Reading is the episode of “The Woman Caught in Adultery.” The actual story is a little bit of problem, however, for it does not appear in the earliest known manuscripts we have of the Gospel of St. John, while it has even been found in texts of St. Luke’s Gospel as well. Many scholars think, therefore, that it properly belongs to the Gospel of St. Luke, because it reflects themes that are dear to St. Luke, such as, concern for sinners, interest in women, and the compassion of Jesus. They surmise that it may have initially been censored because of its delicate subject matter, only to find itself, eventually, awkwardly inserted into the Gospel of St. John.
“Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery.”
The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman to Jesus and making her stand in the middle, they said to him: “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now, in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”
Now, we are told nothing of the precise circumstances of the woman ‘taken in adultery.’ We do know that she could not have been ‘taken’ alone; there would have also been a man somewhere in the wings who was at least as guilty as the woman. But only the woman is ‘brought’ to Jesus in the public arena, a spectacle for the assembled crowd. Here the social context is also important. Adultery was seen as an affront to the honor of the man. This was a male dominated society. Women were mere possessions. As we know, it takes two to commit adultery, but the Jewish laws were only against women.
Outwardly, it seemed to be a warranted act against a lawbreaker and this woman should have been brought normally to the Sanhedrin, a group of religious elders who pass judgment on most cases (However, the Romans had taken away the Jewish rights to capital punishment; so, they were not allowed to kill anyone or they would be going against Roman law). In this case, however, the scribes and Pharisees in question were more interested because of the fortuitous opportunity it offered them to discredit Jesus. So, they brought her to Jesus. The Gospel writer explains: “They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge against him.” The scribes and Pharisees were pointing their fingers at the adulterous woman as 'the accused,' but their real intent was to build a case against Jesus, the one they truly wished to accuse. The sinful woman was being used as a pawn in their ploy to trap Jesus in a very difficult case, in which any solution he would give would work to his disadvantage. If, as they suspected, he counseled mercy and forgiveness, and exempted the woman from Jewish law, they could accuse him of publicly flouting the Law and undermining social standards, and he would lose credibility as a religious leader. If, on the other hand, he affirmed the Law and condemned the woman, he would be seen to be complicit in the woman's murder, and to contradict the values he proposed to others – and hence lose face before the crowd, and also he would be in defiance of Roman authorities and be accused as a rebel. It was a dilemma - and the trap appeared inescapable.
“Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Jesus did not dignify their manipulation with a response. He responded by not responding. His response to the quandary was a symbolic action, by which he took away their power over the woman. According to the Gospel writer: “Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.” First of all, he slowed them down. They came, a group of them together, strong and certain in their judgment. There was a moment of silence while Jesus wrote with his finger in the dust. He wasn’t writing words for them to read, but giving them time to realize what they were doing.
But the leaders were insistent and kept asking Jesus to provide a ruling concerning the woman’s fate, and the crowd was waiting for the go signal. At last, Jesus arose and surprised them all by suggesting that the innocent party begin the execution - “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” By saying this he poured water on the group’s ardor to stone the woman. Definitely, he did not tell them that the woman was innocent of the charge. Rather, he subverted their ploy by confronting them with their own sinfulness; he forced them to go over their own personal histories of sin and if they found themselves innocent, then they could cast the first stone.
After he had given his statement, however, Jesus bent down again and wrote on the ground, in a symbolic action made more powerful and meaningful by the words he had just spoken. He gave them more time in total silence. They had come with one voice condemning. Now each of them thought about the challenge Jesus put to them. To their credit, not one of them took up the challenge. The oldest members of the group were the first to recognize how Jesus had played the trump card. They were the first to react and one by one, all slipped away quietly out of his sight till Jesus was alone with the woman.
For centuries, speculation has been rife as to what Jesus actually wrote or traced on the ground. But there is no sure way of knowing what Jesus wrote; it may be that he merely wished to show he was unmoved by the accusations of the self-righteous and refused to walk into their all too obvious trap.
“Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
The last scene of today’s Gospel episode portrays with exquisite beauty the poignant encounter between the adulterous woman and Jesus, the source of forgiveness and grace. One by one the accusers had left the place. Only the woman remained, still waiting for the rest of her sentence. She was finally accorded the dignity of responding for herself. Jesus straightened up and asked her two questions that would gently underline her astounding experience of salvation: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” When the redeemed woman answered that there was no one, Jesus exercised his authority, not as a judge, but as a savior. Unlike the Pharisees and Scribes, upholders of the Law, he refused to condemn her. “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
By saying this Jesus didn't mean that the woman didn’t do any wrong. No way did Jesus approve of her sin, but instead, he showed mercy to her and pardoned her. And he readily gave her a compassionate admonition that would radically set her on the road of conversion and restoration. She was freed from the burden of condemnation and was sent on her way - contrite and resolute, not only to obey the law for the law’s sake but to renew her conscience and to reform her behavior according to the loving mercy that had been shown her.
And, as for the woman’s accusers, Jesus redirected their judgmental frame of mind. Instead of judging others, they should judge themselves. Jesus did not condemn them either, but he helped them to come to their senses and realize their sinfulness.
Two kinds of sinners...
We might say there are two kinds of sinners in today’s Gospel passage. First, there is the woman who was caught in the act of adultery, a very serious matter. But in this story, the Scribes and Pharisees are also sinners, not in their own eyes, of course, but in the eyes of Jesus and his Gospel. They are totally lacking in the compassion that God displays and which he expects his followers to have. They are proud and arrogant, they give themselves the prerogative to sit in judgment on others.
Now, the Israelite people – they were God's chosen people. God established a covenant with them and made them His own. The relationship of God with the Israelite people was often looked upon as a marriage – Israel the bride and God the bridegroom. But it happened so often that the Israelite people were unfaithful to the covenant; many times they abandoned their God and went after pagan gods. They behaved like an adulterous wife. They actually prefigure 'the adulterous woman' of today's Gospel passage. But God out of compassion, love and mercy for them, ever sought for them and always forgave them. In the First Reading of today from the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, the author delivers a message of great hope and promise to the Israelite people who are in exile. The prophet exhorts his fellow Israelites to look to the past and to remember the wondrous acts of their God, all through the stages of their development as a people. But, while reminding his contemporaries of their history, he challenges them not to 'dwell' in the past for its own sake, but to take 'hope' from the past and look for similar divine acts of mercy and power in the future: “The things of long ago consider not; see I am doing something new!” i.e. God will transform their future and usher in a new age.
Again, St. Paul – a jealous and self-righteous Pharisee, who took pride in the Jewish religion and persecuted the first Christians. In his earlier life, he just acted like 'the Scribes and Pharisees' in the Gospel passage of today. But his encounter with the Risen Lord on the road to Damascus brought him down to his senses, and later he became a zealous apostle ready to suffer and give his life for Christ. In the Second Reading of today in his Letter to the Philippians, St. Paul says - “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death.” He further recalls that he has given up everything to make room for Christ in his life. He knows it isn't easy to do this. But in the end, he will share in Christ's Resurrection. That is why Paul describes himself as a runner, pushing on toward the finish line.
… and they represent all of us.
As a penitential season, Lent is an invitation for us to recall our sinfulness in a particular way. The woman in this story is not just an isolated sinner. She represents all of us. She represents every person who has sinned. She represents you and me. But, the real focus of the narrative should be on the attitude of the self-appointed, righteous ones, the Scribes and Pharisees, whose harsh judgment of the woman clouded their consciences to their own sinfulness. They are sinners too, and also represent you and me. We sin in both ways - when we hurt others by indulging our desires at their expense and when we hurt others by setting ourselves up as superior and better than they.
The image of Jesus, though, is one of kindness and hope with the woman caught in adultery, so also with the Scribes and Pharisees. He doesn’t say that the woman didn’t sin, or the Scribes and Pharisees were innocent. And, he neither condemned them nor punished them; instead he showed them his compassion and mercy, and exhorted to sin no more. Jesus offers that same compassion and mercy to each one of us, and also says to us - “NEITHER DO I CONDEMN YOU. GO, AND FROM NOW ON DO NOT SIN ANY MORE.” He does not expect perfection of us. However, he expects us to strive for perfection. And this is today's Good News.