March 21, 2010
The Fifth Sunday in Lent
Today, we will look at one of the most dramatic private encounters. It also contains one of Jesus' most well-known statements. But before we can appreciate this encounter or understand this statement, we need to understand the setting.
The beginning of the Gospel reading sounds like an honest request for help in pursuing justice, but they weren't interested in justice; they were only interested in trapping Jesus! What kind of trap? The Scribes and Pharisees thought they had found a situation that would serve their purposes perfectly. They thought they had Jesus caught between the demands of Mosaic Law and the law of the occupying Roman forces. The Scribes and Pharisees were looking for the perfect example to disprove the claim of who Jesus was. Let’s face it, the Scribes and Pharisees did not need to go to Jesus to solve this; they could have (and should have) gone to the High Priests, based on Judaic Law. In fact, based on their claims that Jesus was nothing less than a heretic, it is ludicrous to think they would even consider Jesus to solve this moral problem. What they were doing, was setting Jesus up in a trap; pure and simple.
If Jesus, in response to their question, was “soft” and pardoned the woman caught in adultery, how could he claim to be faithful to the tradition of Moses? On the other hand, if he advocated stoning her to death, he would be liable to persecution by the Romans, who had taken away from the Jews the right to put anyone to death. They felt there was no way they could lose.
As we most know, the Old Testament listed adultery as a capital crime (Lev. 20:10). This is sometimes viewed as amusing to the modern reader, when it merits no punishment in our modern society. This could be said of many of the “laws” we find in the Old Testament in relation to modern times, however…. The Mosaic Law was very tough on crimes against people, relationships, and the family unit. The other law codes were tough on property crimes, as an example, cutting off hands as the punishment for property crimes, as opposed to stoning to death for crimes against people. This difference highlights the different value-systems, things versus people.
The religious leaders hoped to impale Jesus on the horns of a dilemma. If he agreed with the Old Testament law and called for her execution, they could accuse him of sedition before the Romans, because since 30 AD the Romans had taken away the Jews' right of capital punishment. If he said she shouldn't be stoned, they could accuse him of false teaching and discredit him with the people, because of what the Old Testament law mandated. Common people usually prefer harsh punishment for proven criminals.
Not surprisingly, Jewish civil law had very strict conditions under which this crime was punishable by execution. They really felt they had Jesus corned this time. They thought that they really knew the answer to this one and the woman. It required that they be caught in the act (Num. 5:13). So, are we to assume here that one of them caught the woman and the man in the act of adultery?
But the same law stated that both parties were to be produced and prosecuted (Deut. 22:22). The last time I checked, it took two people to commit adultery! If they caught the woman "in the very act," then where is the man? It is obvious that there is a conspiracy here. Why? If there was any integrity to the whole action, the ones drawing the woman here, they would have had the other party as well. The whole story could have been fabricated, but the most plausible explanation is that these men have set the woman up to use her in their attempt to discredit Jesus. They probably sent an "undercover agent" to solicit her services (maybe one of them), then on a pre-arranged signal burst in, let him go and dragged her to Jesus. This makes them accessories to the crime and therefore guilty of adultery themselves. Farfetched? Maybe…..
What did Jesus write in the dirt? Nobody knows for certain because it doesn't say. Whatever he wrote did not appear to back them off. Maybe he simply wrote the 6th commandment. What is important is not what he wrote on the ground, but what he said to them. They thought they really had him! But Jesus was smarter than they gave him credit for. Why is Jesus really writing on the ground? Stalling for time? No, he was tested many times like this and was never caught off guard. And here, he clearly smelled something rotten; not just that they were using her to get at Jesus--something equally as immoral. The common modern practice of dealing with misbehaving children is to put them in a “time-out corner”. So, maybe Jesus was giving these adult children a “cooling-off’ period, or “time-out corner”. So, in essence, Jesus ignores their test and gives them time to think.
So, how does Jesus respond? Just about everyone knows the verse, but most misapply it. It is usually cited either as a prohibition against making moral judgments, or as a support for abolishing capital punishment. This is not the time to discuss capital punishment, but whatever your view on capital punishment, you shouldn't use this verse to support it. Why? Because Jesus could not have meant this without directly contradicting Old Testament law and playing right into the hands of his enemies.
What Jesus means is "Whoever among you, who is without equal guilt in this specific case, be the one to initiate the execution." He had discerned the conspiracy, and was letting them know that if they initiated her execution, they were also initiating their own prosecution and condemnation! He turned their test around and against themselves. Jesus turns the accusation away from the woman and turns it toward the accusers. The older ones caught on more quickly and did the only smart thing they did in the entire incident - they skedaddled out of there! And with them went the case against her under Jewish law.
What the Pharisees did not take into account were Jesus’ deep love and compassion for humanity. They did not understand his claim that “God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:17). A story that begins with a deathly accusation, ends with divine mercy. Jesus knew that every person in the world had been deeply tainted by sin; that everyone, regardless of outward appearances, was in slavery to sin and desperately needed the salvation he came to offer.
Now she is left looking at with Jesus’ followers still looking on. You think you've had bad days! She has been group-busted, publicly humiliated, and was in danger of losing her life. Now suddenly her accusers are dispatched. She has just witnessed Jesus' penetrating insight into their sin and his condemnation of their actions, but how will he deal with her now? As is so often the case, the way Jesus responds is different than what she probably expected.
Jesus’ words to the woman caught in adultery should encourage us. Our desire is often to avoid sin, but we sometimes feel powerless in rejecting temptation and overcoming sinful patterns. To know that Jesus believes us capable of overcoming sin, (through his help, of course) should give us great encouragement.
Jesus does not say "Sin no more, and then I won't condemn you." Instead, Jesus says "I do not condemn you--now go and sin no more." He isn't saying merely that he won't prosecute her. Neither is he saying that she isn't responsible for her actions. Neither is he saying that he accepts her apology to him, although we do not know of her giving one. He is forgiving what she did to others, and to God. In other words, he is issuing a declaration of divine forgiveness, even though she is guilty!! How can he do this without making a complete mockery of God's justice? Because he is willing to pay the penalty for her sins himself. Because he was willing to pay this penalty. God the Father has given him the authority to forgive all those who believe in him.
Paul’s words to the Philippians can give us hope in this regard as well. He says, “Indeed I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection.” “I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Paul’s words express a heart set on Jesus, a heart that knows Jesus intimately and personally. They reflect one who has had a true conversion and who desires to turn from sin and embrace Jesus and the life he offers. When these qualities are reflected in our hearts, we too will be strengthened in our attempts to overcome temptations that lead to sin.
How does this all apply to us? Lent calls us to the same kind of encounter with Jesus, so that we too face our own sinfulness, hear his invitation to embrace a new way of living, and make the right choice. Part of the central theme is that we are quick to condemn each other. Jesus’ lesson is that we search within ourselves prior to proclaiming a condemnation.
As we approach Easter, let us open our hearts to Jesus so that we might know him more intimately, love him more fully, and follow him more faithfully. We will find the same power that freed Jesus from the grave will strengthen and free us from our sinful patterns and enable us to walk faithfully with him. That is true humility.
May God richly bless you during this Passiontide. +
God Love You +
+ The Most Rev. Robert Winzens
Pastor – St. Francis Universal Catholic Church
San Diego, Ca.