A WOMAN CAUGHT IN ADULTERY
(A biblical reflection on the 5th Sunday of Lent [Year C], 7 April 2019)
Gospel Reading: John 8:1-11
First Reading: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalms: Psalm 126:1-6; Second Reading: Philippians 3:8-14
Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning He came again to the temple; all the people came to Him, and He sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to Him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?” This they said to test Him, that they might have some charge to bring against Him. Jesus bent down and wrote with His finger on the ground. As they continued to ask Him, He stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more He bent down and wrote with His finger on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before Him. Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.” (John 8:1-11 RSV)
Since the rabbi was usually the most educated man in a city, the Jews often consulted him whenever they had to make a particularly difficult decision about one of the Jewish laws. In today’s Gospel, the scribes and the Pharisees bring such a matter to Rabbi Jesus for His opinion.
According to their law, the Jews were supposed to take anyone guilty of adultery outside the city gates and, depending on the circumstances of the crime, either stone or strangle that person to death. Witnesses to the crime were to be the first ones to carry out the punishment. In today’s Gospel, the scribes and the Pharisees come to Jesus with a woman they caught committing adultery and they ask His opinion about what they should do to her.
This situation undoubtedly put Jesus in an uncomfortable position because if He said the woman should die for this offense, some of the Jews would accuse Him of not practicing the forgiveness He so often preached about. On the other hand, if He said she should go free, they would charge Him with encouraging adultery. It seems like Jesus could not win.
It’s not clear what Jesus writes in the sand, but the Greek word the evangelist uses in this passage usually means “to write down a record against someone”. Some biblical scholars suggest Jesus was writing a list of the sins of the men who were about to stone the woman. However, this is only a guess and there is no way to know for certain.
After everyone leaves, Jesus tells the woman to go her way but not to commit adultery again. The lesson Jesus wants to teach is clear. We cannot confess our sins and expect God to forgive us unless we intend to avoid those sins in the future. Forgiveness presupposes an effort and a desire to do better.
There are two interesting details missing from today’s Gospel story. The evangelist never mentions the man with whom the woman committed adultery but, according to Jewish law, he too should have been condemned to die. Also, the evangelist never names the woman. Nowhere does the Bible ever identify her as Mary Magdalene. Mary has been wrongly accused and never vindicated.
It is easier to condemn than it is to forgive. Let each of us now identify one person we are critical of. Let us ask God to help us accept and forgive this person as just Jesus accepted and forgave the woman in this story.
(Adapted from Jerome J. Sabatowich, Cycling Through the Gospels – Gospel Commentaries for Cycles A, B, and C, pages 254-255.)
Prayer: Heavenly Father, I marvel that You love me so much that You will forgive every sin, no matter how great, if I only ask. Amen.
Jakarta, 5 April 2019
A Christian Pilgrim