Jesus, the woman caught in adultery, and true forgiveness

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5th Sunday of Lent, Year C: March 20, 2010
Isa 43:16-21; Ps 126:1-6; Phil 3:8-14; John 8:1-11

Consider this stream of thought. It might sound familiar. “If other people found out some of the things that I have done, what would they think of me? What would they say to me? What would they say to each other? If they knew the truth of what I have done behind closed doors, because it felt good, at least for a moment; if they knew what I’ve done to other people in my job, or what I’ve seen others do, without saying a word about it; what would they do to me? Would they recoil in horror? Would it be the end—the end of our friendship; the end of my employment; the end of my family; the end of any respect and love at all? If they knew the truth about me, what would they do?”

These are questions that probably every person here has asked sometime—perhaps many years in the past; perhaps at this very moment, right here, during Mass. And, very possibly, at whatever time we’re thinking of, we asked the questions and still kept on doing that wrong, shameful thing—desperately hoping we would not be found out; that we would not ever be caught in the act—

as the woman in today’s Gospel reading was caught in the act. Caught in the very act of committing adultery! 2000 years ago, when there were no cameras and no recording technology of any kind, catching someone actually in that act would have been fairly difficult; and so we may wonder whether the scribes and Pharisees may have actually set a trap—hidden themselves and waited for it to happen. Notice that the man that this woman was with is not present in this story. The Pharisees have not dragged him in to stone him. Why not? Was he an accomplice in setting the trap? Was he willing to act as bait to lure this unhappy woman into his arms; and then to snap shut the arms of the trap, when the scribes and Pharisees jumped out from where they were hiding?

This is speculation. But it is clear that, whether the scribes and Pharisees set a deliberate trap or not, they were treating this woman caught in adultery in an utterly cruel and callous way. To them, she was dirt; her life was forfeit; and all they wanted with her was to use her as a tool to put the screws on Jesus. “In the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” In another context, this could have been a question for them to debate. But they have this woman standing right there in the middle of them, in the flesh, disheveled, terribly afraid, caught in the act of adultery, ready to be stoned right then—

“So. What’s it going to be, Jesus? This isn’t just an abstract question. Right now! Don’t stone; or stone? Excuse her, or condemn her?” Up until now, they think, Jesus has been playing it both ways with the crowds: he’s the holy guy who’s also compassionate. “Well, no more! Jesus, say that we should excuse her, and show that you’re against the Law of Moses, nothing but a dangerous libertine who cares nothing about holiness or purity. Or else, say that we should condemn her, and thus let all these sinners that you’ve been reaching out to and sharing meals with, let them know that it is actually death that they deserve; and that you’re ready to condemn them and in fact you’ll pick up a stone and throw it at them yourself. It’s one or the other. Excuse, or condemn? Don’t stone, or stone? What’s it going to be? Moses commanded us to stone such women. What do you say?”

And Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.

What is he writing? It’s the only time that Scripture ever tells us that Jesus wrote anything; and what is he writing? Some have speculated that he was writing the sins of those who were present; or that he was writing the Ten Commandments, as the finger of God had written them on those stone tablets, so many centuries before; or that he was writing words of judgment, like that disembodied hand in the Book of Daniel wrote on the wall; or that he was recalling the words of the Prophet Jeremiah [17:13, RSV], “those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth.” And there are still more theories that commentators come up with, because it seems awfully important; and yet the evangelist doesn’t tell us what he was writing.

But as we focus in upon Jesus, crouched on the ground and writing with his finger in the dirt—which is the same thing that every other person who has ever listened to this Gospel story has done—focused on him—and that the people who were there at the time did—notice that we have forgotten all about the Pharisees. Just a moment ago, they had all the momentum, and the law, and the guilty party, and the demands, and the horns of the dilemma that they were forcing upon him. But now, once again, Jesus has taken our focus away from them and drawn it to himself, and we see that he is the one with the wisdom; and he is the one with the knowledge; and he will be the one to judge, in this moment, when everyone is standing there; and so we wait upon the words that he will speak in his own time.

Jesus’ society, and our society, and every society that has passed during the 20 centuries in between, always poses that same framework to us: excuse or condemn; one or the other; nothing else. Now, it might seem strange to think that this is still the case in our own society, because we hear so many people say things about tolerance and freedom. And yet it is the case. Because our society is still working in that same framework. It’s just that different people move different sins to one side or the other. Something that used to be excused now gets condemned; something that used to be condemned now gets excused. The pieces get moved back and forth across the line, but the line remains. Excuse—there’s nothing really wrong with it; or condemn—it is wrong and it must be punished. And people have this funny tendency to arrange the sins on the two sides of the line in such a way that they and their group come out looking pretty good: everything they do is on the excused side of the line; while it’s the other group that ends up getting condemned. Every group does that in all directions.

But our Lord Jesus Christ is not another sinful human being trying to hide his own sin and put himself up by putting other people down. Our Lord Jesus is true God and true man; he is truly holy; he is completely without sin and he is completely characterized by true, self-giving love. And so when he looks at this woman standing in the middle, he doesn’t see a chance to get ahead, like the Pharisees; and he doesn’t see an object of physical pleasure for himself, like that man she was in adultery with; and he doesn’t see some sort of horrible monster, like she might well feel herself to be. No, what he sees is the incredibly beautiful creature that he made, who he has loved from all eternity. And he sees the tragedy of what sin has torn out of her; what the sin of others and what her own sin have torn out of the goodness and the wholeness that he meant to be there. He sees the emptiness and the wounds that others have carved in her through their sins against her. He sees the hurt and the betrayals that she has caused in herself and others through her own sin.

He does not excuse this, because he sees the truth of the matter. But neither does he condemn it, although in justice he certainly could: he could be the first to throw a stone at her; he could be the one to throw all the stones at her. But our Lord Jesus loves this woman with divine love, and he has the remarkable idea that he will be able to undo the damage of all that sin; that that void, he can fill; that those wounds, he can heal; and that the beautiful creature that he created in his Image, who has been torn apart, he can remake and save.

The Pharisees were ready to take her life, to trap Jesus. But Jesus is ready to give his own life, to set her free.

And when on Good Friday he is beaten and scourged, and nailed to the cross, and his heart is pierced, and from it pours forth blood and water, it will be the water of baptism by which he can wash her clean and forgive all her sins and adopt her as a daughter of God; and it will be the flesh and blood of Holy Communion, by which he can feed her with himself, in a gift that is unspeakably precious and personal.

“If he knew the truth about me, what would he do?” And so we read: he was left alone with the woman before him. St. Augustine, 1600 years ago, in his commentary on this passage, wrote: “relicti sunt duo, misera et misericordia”; “and now two are left, the one in misery, and mercy.” Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.”

He did not excuse, which would have left her in her suffering and bondage; he did not condemn, which would have completed the destruction of this, his creature, that sin had begun. Instead, he chose the way that our world has really never known, even when it uses the word. He forgave. He chose not to hold her sin against her, and he did not will that harm should come upon her, but he willed her good, her true good; and he gave his life to make it possible. Because there is nothing passive or weak about Jesus’ forgiveness. He was willing to go where no one would go, and to give what no one would give. And his love never fails.

The one who had opened a passage through the Red Sea and stopped the Egyptian army that was in pursuit, back at the time of the Exodus, as the first reading reminded us; who then prepared a way in the desert to bring his people back from their exile in Babylon, as the prophet Isaiah was promising—once again he opens a new way out: not the same old way of sin, but a new way in himself. Once again he says, “See, I am doing something new!” And in our world, true forgiveness is always new. Grace is always fresh. Redemption is always startling, no matter how many times he has accomplished it in people’s hearts through the centuries. “See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”

Do you not perceive it, when it springs forth in baptism; and in just two weeks, a catechumen in our parish will have all of her sins washed away in baptism. Do you not perceive it, when it springs forth in confession; when each of us has the chance to come face to face with Jesus, one on one, and look into his eyes, just like that woman in the Gospel; to look into his knowing eyes, his loving eyes, and to receive his forgiveness and his grace.

“Just two are left, the one in misery, and mercy.” “Where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

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Published in: on March 20, 2010 at 8:00 pm  Leave a Comment  
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