Fifth Sunday of Lent year C Lectio divina on Jn 8,1-11
Jesus met a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. He did not condemn her but sent her away free. This is one of the most moving episodes in the Gospel. We are impressed by the authority with which Jesus frees this woman from the sentence of death she deserved according to the law, and the tactful way he reminds her accusers of their own sins. It would be wrong for us however to look back on the episode and not allow ourselves to be challenged by Jesus’ way of acting. This is always the danger – that we neglect the message. We feel that what happened has nothing to do with us, and we fail to apply the message to ourselves. If we look well at the incident, we will not be surprised by the words of Jesus and the forgiveness he shows. But for this story to be good news for us today, we have to identify with one side or the other, with the accused or with her accusers, or maybe, indeed, with both.
At that time: 1 Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple; all the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. 3The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in their midst 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?” 6 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. 7 And 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.” 8 And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 9 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. 10 Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.”
I. Read: understand what the text is saying, focussing on how it says it
Everything seems to indicate that the story of the woman taken in adultery (Jn 7,53-8,11), did not originally belong to John’s Gospel. The style is not like his. The location is not appropriate, since it interrupts a discourse given by Jesus (Jn 7,37-52, 8, 12-21). It was included, probably, as an example of the friendship Jesus showed towards public sinners. His way of acting was a cause of scandal for devout Jews, and it created difficulty for the penitential practice of the early Church.
The incident took place during the last days of Jesus’ life. Jesus was teaching in the Temple (Jn 8,2) when he was confronted with a flagrant case of adultery (Jn 8:3-4). The facts of the case are reported twice and are beyond dispute (Jn 8,3.4). The judgement given by Jesus had to be clear and immediate. The law sentenced an adulteress to death (Exod 20,14; Lev 18,20, 20,10; Deut 5.18, 22,22-24), but did not specify what kind of death. The woman’s accusers demanded that Jesus take a position in her regard (Jn 8,5): he would have to choose between the will of God and his own wish to associate with sinners. This meant either going against the law or acting contrary to his own teaching. The woman was standing in the middle, as was required in a formal interrogation (Acts 4:07). Jesus did not speak. He knew, as the evangelist observes, that they were laying a trap for him (Jn 8,6). He bent down and wrote on the ground. His gesture was unexpected and its meaning unclear.
Faced with the insistence of the accusers, Jesus responded with the law, citing the duty of the principal witness to begin the capital punishment (Jn 8:7, cf Deut 13.10, 17.7, Lev 24,14). Their intentions were evident. They had recourse to the law to get Jesus to condemn the woman, but they were not ready to do what the law imposed. If they were the witnesses against her, then they should be her executioners. They become responsible for their judgement, provided they were without sin. Jesus did not demand from his accusers fidelity in their marriage. He demanded a higher fidelity, not limited to the realm of marriage. They can insist that the law be respected, only if they have always respected it. They can accuse, if they are not open to accusation.
The gesture of writing on the ground (Jn 8,6.8) is hard to understand, but, together with the words of Jesus, it plays a fundamental role in obtaining the woman’s acquittal. The accusers, starting with the most senior, leave the scene and the woman remains alone with Jesus, the only one who had not accused her (Jn 8,10). The woman realized she had not been condemned (Jn 8,11). What her accusers had not done, was to carry out the sentence. There was no discussion at any stage of her sin; it can be forgiven. Jesus abstains from passing judgement, and therefore is not in a position to ask that she be punished according to the law. Above all, however, he offers her a new possibility of life (8.10). She is freed from condemnation in order to live free from sin. The law condemns past events. The words of Jesus open up unlimited future possibilities. Like God (Ezechiel 33:11), Jesus does not will the death of the sinner, but conversion and new life.
II. MEDITATION: apply what the text says to life
In contrast to what the law prescribed, Jesus prevented the death of the adulterous woman. But he did not oppose the will of God as expressed in the law. What he did was to extend the accusation of sin to the sinner’s accusers. Jesus did not deny the woman’s guilt nor the rightness of the law. What he did oppose was that a sinner whose guilt remained hidden should be the one to pass judgment on a neighbour who has sinned. We admire the forgiveness Jesus offered to the woman, even if we are surprised by his condemnation of her judges. The woman could not deny her fault since it had happened in public, and she did not expressly ask for forgiveness. Anyone who thinks he is being good when he condemns his neighbour, is not doing God’s will and will not obtain forgiveness for his hidden sins. Jesus always offers a second chance to those who do not deny their sin, but he does not forgive those who condemn others in order to show how righteous they themselves are. The inability to receive forgiveness brings with it an inability to forgive others.
The woman was a public sinner, caught in the very act of adultery, and for this she deserved death. Those who knew the law considered Jesus’ question unnecessary. They had already condemned her. They brought her to Jesus to put him to the test. He was known as a friend of sinners, but in this case he ought to give first place to God’s law which demanded that evil be rooted out from within the people (Deut 22,22). The attitude of Jesus is worth noting. He does not deny that the woman has sinned, nor does he deny that her accusers are right. However, he does not condemn the sinner, but finds a way to make the accusers discover their own sin. He respects the law, but he forgives the person who has disobeyed it. He does not argue against the punishment of sin, but against the practice that only public sinners were punished. Anyone who opposes sin by condemning the sinner, should condemn all sinners, self included. We should not fight only against the evil we see in others. Sin is always evil, whether it is hidden or not, and regardless of how good we might be at hiding it.
The surprising thing is that Jesus did not excuse the woman or cover up her fault. To offer her a new opportunity, he had no need to hear her excuses, or even her admission of guilt. For forgiveness, Jesus does not need to know the motive behind the sin, nor the sinner’s reasons. In this way, his forgiveness was all the more gratuitous, for it was neither requested nor expected. Jesus’ willingness to forgive did not depend on the public shame of the sinner, nor on the sincerity of her repentance. Only at the end, when her accusers had gone and he was the only one left to condemn her, did he tell her to sin no more. He freed her from the punishment she deserved and in doing so offered her a second chance and the possibility of a new way of life. Past sin does not matter to him… provided we make it the last!
That is how generous our God is. With God, there is always a second chance. It does not matter to God if our defects are so obvious that not even he can deny them. It does not matter to God that others condemn us, even rightly, given the evidence of our evil life. In him, we have our best advocate and defender. We can be certain that our sin will be forgiven and forgotten forever. He will come to our defence when everybody else throws our mistakes in our face. He will forget our sins even when we cannot deny them. He will welcome us when others abandon us. He will deliver us from our accusers and, what is far more important, from our sins. With a God like this, our sins do not count nearly as much as his desire that we sin no more, and so we need not fear our sinfulness. He and he alone is the one we must fear losing, if we do not want to be totally lost forever.
If we really believe this, why do we find it so difficult to confess our infidelities? Why are we too ashamed to admit that we are public sinners, if we are certain that we will be publicly forgiven and defended against our accusers? If we lack the courage to ask God’s forgiveness, it is because we lack faith in his willingness to forgive us. If we come to him but rarely, only when are needs are so great that we are forced to come crawling to him, it is because we are coming to seek alms when we could receive an inheritance. We are satisfied with his power when we could experience his omnipotence. We ask many things of God but we do not ask forgiveness. We feel less embarrassed about asking for small miracles than we do about acknowledging our need for his enormous mercy. We are afraid that we will find a judge rather than a friend, an accuser rather than an advocate who will defend us. If we do not discover our sin, and accept that our life has taken us away from God, we will never experience his forgiveness and we will not come to know God as our defender against our accusers. Why should we be afraid to let our sin become public, when God reveals his mercy publicly?
It is our lack of courage in asking for forgiveness that hardens our hearts and makes us unwilling or unable to receive God’s pardon. The woman’s accusers were no better than she was – they were just better able to hide their sins. They had within them sins that had been “forgotten” but not forgiven, and so they were unable to forgive. Those who are not open to the love of God who forgives and forgets our sins, are not open to love sinners and forget their sins. They are unable to forgive, because they know – and only they know! – that they have not been forgiven.
Without any doubt, if we think carefully enough, we will find something of ourselves in the behaviour of those forgetful accusers. We do not feel fully forgiven if there is internal conflict in our hearts, and we are not fully at peace. This is why we become accusers, creators of conflict and discord. The unwillingness to forgive that is so evident in today’s world, even within families, comes from people’s refusal to admit their own mistakes. The distrust of others that is part of our daily co-existence, derives not so much from the evils we have suffered but from our inability to do good. The divisions that characterize our interpersonal relationships, at all levels, are nothing other than a reflection of the division that exists between us and God. We are unable to promote communion and unity, because we have broken off from God. We are unable to forgive others because we ourselves do not feel forgiven.
The fault does not lie in others, no matter how obvious their faults may be. It is our sin, our hidden and unacknowledged sin, that keeps us from being able to live as people forgiven by God. Anyone who has met a God who forgives even hidden sins, will not accuse his brother or sister of sin, even if their sin is in the public domain. Anyone who has come to know God as a Father knows that their neighbour, even if he or she is evil and troublesome, is their brother or sister. If, then, we want to meet a God who will pardon us whenever we have need of it, let us look for the brother or sister who has sinned and pardon them. May God who tells us to forgive others, give us the strength to do so.