5th Sunday of Lent – 13 March 2016

"Forget the Past and believe in the Power of Jesus"

Scripture Reading – John 8:1-11

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At daybreak he appeared in the Temple again; and as all the people came to him, he sat down and began to teach them.

The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman along who had been caught committing adultery; and making her stand there in full view of everybody, they said to Jesus, ‘Master, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery, and Moses has ordered us in the Law to condemn women like this to death by stoning. What have you to say?’ They asked him this as a test, looking for something to use against him. But Jesus bent down and started writing on the ground with his finger. As they persisted with their question, he looked up and said, ‘If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.’ Then he bent down and wrote on the ground again. When they heard this they went away one by one, beginning with the eldest, until Jesus was left alone with the woman, who remained standing there. He looked up and said, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir’ she replied. ‘Neither do I condemn you,’ said Jesus ‘go away, and do not sin any more.’

Gospel reading – Courtesy of Universalis Publishing Ltd. – www.universalis.com


“Forget the Past and believe in the Power of Jesus”

by Fr John Campion SDB

The scriptures today remind us to let go of the past and believe in God’s mercy and forgiveness as revealed in Jesus. Our faith is about an encounter with the person of Jesus. The gospel story today is an encounter of mercy. We see the crowd using the woman in order to trap Jesus.  They are using the law and her public sin in order to trap him. The law focuses on her sin. My question is what about the man who participated in the sin. Where is he?  In the scene,   you have the crowd, the woman and Jesus. In it there is judgement, misery and mercy.

You can just imagine her vulnerability, broken by life, embarrassed by the crowd, feelings of anger and guilt. She is being judged by arrogance, self righteousness of the crowd, people with all the answers and no sense of feeling for another human being. Jesus does not answer their question and he confronts judgment by just writing on the ground. He does not judge or condemn but asks a challenging question. Let the ‘one who has not sinned cast the first stone’.  There is silence and one by one they walk away and metaphorically drop their stone on the ground. He had challenged them to judge themselves and confront their own sin. Do not judge public sin but face the hidden sin of your own lives. It is the same for us.

For the first time the woman is treated as a human being, a person and not as an object. Jesus has the power to look into her heart.  He then asks her, has anyone condemned you. Neither do I, go away and sin no more.  He offers her a new possibility of life.  He sees something in her that she hadn’t seen herself. She is freed from condemnation in order to live free from sin. The law condemns the past but the words of Jesus open up unlimited future possibilities.

Jesus does not will the death of the sinner but conversion to a new life. The woman that day met God’s mercy in the flesh and he liberates her. He condemns the sin but not the sinner. His mercy is pure gift. In the last verse  of Christy Kenneally’s Poem “The Woman who found love” we see it expressed.

She changed her life people say,
And all who saw the change still praise the name
Of one who came and went upon his way
Of one who saw her love and not her shame.

As he encounters us today, he sees into our hearts. Like the Diviner or the treasure hunter with the metal detector scanning the earth’s crust, Jesus sees and trusts that the buried treasure will see light of day and sparkle. He wants the walls of shame and guilt around us to fall. He wants to free our hearts of all the dark and heavy stuff that marks our stories and wants us to give us reason again to praise. We can all fit into the place of the woman or the crowd because we are sinners. He wants us to leave them behind and learn from them, convert and live.  Pope Francis keeps reminding us that he is a sinner and he encourages us to turn to Jesus the healer who calls us to transform our lives by repentance.

Lord, open the door of our hearts and let Jesus come in and heal us so that we can bring his love and mercy to others. May we hear his voice that says, I love you, let go of the past, go away, sin no more and begin your life again through the power of Jesus.


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.


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 fidelity in their marriage from his accusers. 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.

Meditate: 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 publicly. 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 our 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 mistrust 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 of sin, even if his sin is in the public domain. Anyone who has come to know God as a Father knows that his neighbour, even if he is evil and troublesome, is his brother. If, then, we want to meet a God who will pardon us whenever we have need of it, let us look for the brother who has sinned and pardon him. We pray that God who tells us to forgive others, may give us the strength to do so.


Lord our God, your Son so loved the world
that he gave himself up to death for our sake.
Strengthen us by your grace,
and give us a heart willing to live by that same love.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.


“Forget the Past and believe in the Power of Jesus”
by Fr John Campion SDB

Music: “Moorland” Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0