The Woman Caught in Adultery, Julia Stankova 2015, Julia’s Galleries.
Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” John 8:10-11.
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Last Sunday we saw the return of the lost/dead/prodigal son to the super-forgiving, merciful, father, having wasted everything he had been given, only to be rewarded a thousandfold by the love and forgiveness of his father (but perhaps not of his elder brother). This Sunday we have another unforgettable scene of forgiveness, this time in real life rather than in a parable, of a woman caught in the act of adultery. Hauled to the Master, thrown at his feet, the overjoyed men dying to see if this would be Jesus’ undoing. They thought they had trapped him utterly, his ministry at an end. Why? Because no matter how he responds to their demand (What do you want us to do with her?) he will be damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. How come? Easy. His whole message, command even, is that we should love one another, forgive one another, even “seventy times seven times” (Matthew 18:22). So if Jesus agrees with the law, that such persons should be stoned to death and so should she, he would be condemning his own teaching and seen as a fraud; his entire mission would collapse. Yet if he says we must love her and forgive her and must let her go, he would be contradicting the law, which clearly states that adulterers should be stoned to death, and that would mean he had broken the law himself and be no better than the woman. What to do?
For the first and only time in Scripture, the Lord pauses, kneels down and begins to write/doodle/draw something in the dusty ground, saying nothing. And not one word in Scripture tells us what that was. But the crowd, slavering for a response, convinced they had him trapped, howled for a response, and that is exactly what they got. Yes, Scripture is very clear, she should be stoned for her sin. So, therefore, says the Lord, let the one who is without sin or fault in any way, be the one to cast the first stone. Surely, is the thought, that only the sinless can punish the sinful? Who gives a sinner the right to punish the sinful? So, in that small community, where everyone knew everyone (there are no secrets in neighborhoods), woe betide the first person to pick up a stone, as there would be someone who would remember some old disgrace from years before and start laughing at him. And as we know, there was only one utterly sinless person present… So, almost inevitably, the oldest leave first, for obvious reasons, followed by everyone else. Who can doubt Jesus’ wisdom, sang-froid and brilliance at that time? And he even resisted the temptation to ask where is the man who was the woman’s adulterous partner. The Law clearly states that both should be stoned….
The gentle, even tender, conclusion takes place apparently between just the nameless woman and Jesus. He does not condemn her, but clearly tells her not to sin again. She, for her part, seems to express no remorse, no regret or sorrow. She simply walks away. We have no idea what her response to the event was; we can only guess. Having just stared a horrible death in the face, she was probably in shock, incapable of any reaction at all!
The other readings seem to flesh out what the nature of our God is like. The first reading talks of the might and power of God, who crushed a mighty army intent on destroying God’s people, yet a God who cares for all living things, even jackals and ostriches! Then St. Paul states that simply knowing God is more than anything this world can give that is equal; there is nothing in this world that comes even close to resurrection from the dead, the total defeat of sin, the heart of the absolute goodness of God, all freely given by God for our benefit. All that is encapsulated in the gospel event, the way evil, even hatred, is handled so lovingly by Jesus that it just melts away, conquered by love. Isn’t that what Lent is supposed to be all about? We are called to be Christ to the world, to act in the very same way that Jesus does in today’s gospel, not relying on ourselves, but the Spirit of God working through us as much as we permit it. To be truly God’s presence in the world, a world in dire need of such today.
Christ of St John of the Cross, Dali 1951, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, Scotland Reflections on next Sunday’s Mass Readings will be posted on Wednesday.
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