5th Sunday of Lent (C)
(A timely repost from 2016)
A frightened and humiliated woman slumps to the ground, surrounded by her accusers. She shields her face and her body from their stares, covering herself with what little clothing she managed to gather before they dragged her through the streets to the Temple. She braces herself for the sting of the first, second, and then countless stones hurled at her. She expects to die: she is the woman caught in adultery.
But this story, which is the Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent is not about her; she is merely the pawn of her accusers, who care as much about her as they do the meaning of the Law which they profess to uphold. The story is not about her crime, although we are confronted with it; it’s not about forgiveness, although it appears to be given; and it’s not a lesson about judging others, although it can be inferred to be. The story of the woman caught in adultery is about the nature of God.
Jesus knew what the Scribes and Pharisees were up to. Yes, they hauled a woman whom they claimed was caught “in the very act” of adultery into the Temple, and thrust her before him as he sat teaching, and demanded that he acknowledge the punishment prescribed by the Law—death by stoning. The irony of their challenge to Jesus was not lost on him. If they were so inclined to adhere to the letter of the law regarding adulterers, they would not have left the man behind. The law insists both parties be stoned to death [Leviticus 20:10]. That is not to say Jesus’ response would have been any different; his refusal to look at them, his silence and doodling in the sand would have sent the same message. Jesus declined to participate in their charade.
I think a more accurate name for this story might be, “the infidelity of the Scribes and Pharisees,” because it was they who were unfaithful through their continued attempts to trap Jesus, to sideline his teaching, to find reason to kill him; they were unfaithful to God and the meaning of God’s word, which they claimed to know so well. It is they who had been caught “in the very act” and their departure from the scene, one by one, confirmed their guilt.
But even they were not condemned by Jesus. They condemned themselves.
This Gospel is about Mercy, and Jesus shows it both to the accused and her accusers. He chooses not to stare at the Scribes and Pharisees, as they stared at the accused woman. He did not watch them as “they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.” [JN 8:9]. To the woman whose life was spared, whose name was “adulteress,” Jesus restored her humanity. No reprimand, no lecture, just the freedom to begin anew. Jesus said to her, “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.” [JN 8:11]
Over and over and over again, Scripture and our Christian faith encourage us to begin again. We may be lost, confused, living with the consequences of poor choices, but we are never trapped in that identity, “the one who…” We are more than sinners, more than the labels that describe our failings, and as much as it is our human nature to tag and box and prevent one another from moving forward, our faith tells us to keep going. This is what St. Paul, possibly the greatest convert in history, tells the Philippians, “forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.” [PHIL 8:13-14]
Sin separates us from God. It’s a simple equation: remain close to God, avoid sin. Not so simple in practice, however. Like the religious leaders in Jesus’ day who felt it was their right and duty to end a woman’s life for her sin, it has been the church itself, in the course of her history, whose lack of mercy served to box and label countless women and men. And when I say “the church” I am referring to you and me, not just our leaders. Look no further than today’s headlines showing “Christians” speaking and acting in ways that outstrip the infidelity of the Scribes and Pharisees. Our lack of mercy is so far from the truth of Jesus’ teaching—the truth of God’s nature. We who so readily slip into the robes of the Scribes and Pharisees and accuse others of the crimes we ourselves are guilty of miss the point entirely. Mercy is for everyone, including ourselves. Jesus asked the woman, “Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” [JN 8:11].
The depth of God’s mercy is expressed most eloquently by the Prophet Isaiah when he says, “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?”[IS 43:18-19a]. How refreshing these words are. Our Creator is not a God of the past, but of the present. The same God, who led the Israelites to freedom, is the one who continues to restore, liberate, and make a way for us today. Do you perceive it?
In 2016, the year this reflection was first published, the Church was celebrating the Jubilee year of Mercy. Then, as now, we are reminded to mirror God’s mercy in all that we do. How do you think we are doing?