“Neither do I condemn you. Go, and sin no more” (John 8: 11)
The story of the woman “caught in the very act of committing adultery” that the Church presents to us this week is one that raises many questions and issues for our consideration and reflection. There is the question of the whereabouts of the man; the issue of social inequality against women; the question of a set up or gang up against Jesus; and the issue of law, justice and mercy. In all these, Jesus teaches us the greatest lesson that the justice of God is His mercy, and the mercy of God is His justice; the sinner is more valuable than the sin; and that the sin is to be condemned but the sinner should be forgiven with the hope of a better future.
This story has a very unclear history: many scholars agree that it was not originally part of the Gospel of John until the 6th century. In some Greek manuscripts of John, it appears in some other parts than where it is presently located. In another manuscript, it is located at the end of Luke’s Gospel. Some have even argued that the construction and style of Greek language in this story is more of Luke than John. Fr. Raymond Brown, an American priest of the Sulpician Fathers and a prominent biblical scholar, puts this point thus: “Its succinct expression of the mercy of Jesus is as delicate as anything in Luke; its portrayal of Jesus as the serene judge has all the majesty that we would expect of John.” So the general consensus of scholars is that it is not originally part of St. John’s Gospel, but where? They do not know. Be this as it may, the veracity of the story and its inerrancy is incontrovertible.
The story is set in the Outer Court of the Temple that was a very public place where different people often would gather to be instructed on various aspects of the law by the available Rabbi. This was a perfect venue if one wanted to have a large audience, which is exactly what the Pharisees and the scribes wanted since their intention was not so much to deal with the guilt of the woman but to “test” Jesus in order to trap Him – the larger the crowd the greater would the shame be. Are there still some us like these devious enemies of Jesus, who would set up others for a public disgrace? Do we set traps for friends and others to watch them fall in shame so we could mock them and invite others to do so?
The scribes and the Pharisees brought along a woman who had been caught (in the very act of committing) adultery: This woman is not named. So she could refer to any of us, sinners. But why bring the woman and leave the man? If she was “caught in the very act”, then it means the man was within reach. The Jewish society at the time of Jesus was a society that was most unfair to the woman. But is our age very different? Are we not still struggling with issues of unequal payments, unequal employment opportunities, abuses of women and all forms of inequalities against women today? The Torah was clear that adultery is a capital offense; and that both the man and the woman should be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22: 22-24; Leviticus 20: 10). These men, in their viciousness, let the man go free, while dragging the woman through the streets to the temple and “made her stand in the middle” in shame and humiliation. Was Jesus seeing in this woman the shame and humiliation that He would be subjected to in days to come? Can we see in this woman the shame our sins subject us to whether we are caught or not? With fake and flattering respect, they called Jesus “Teacher” or “Master” (depending on the translation) as they reported the offense of the frightened woman, and asked; “What do you say?” They “did this to test Him, so they could bring a charge against Him.” Beware of flatterers! And please, don’t be one.
The Complex Question: The scribes and Pharisees were clearly out to test Jesus to possibly implicate Him. A “yes-stone-her-answer” would have set Jesus against the Roman authority, who reserved the prerogative to condemn anyone to death; and would have contradicted His own teaching on mercy and forgiveness. A “no-let-her-free-answer” would have set Him against the Torah, the Mosaic Law, that guided the religious life of the Jewish people. In His wisdom, Jesus knew both the strategy and intention of the scribes and Pharisees who brought the woman. Therefore, instead of giving a direct answer He acted differently: “But Jesus bent down and started writing on the ground with His finger.” Was that to give Himself some time? Was He writing down the sins of those who brought the woman, as some conjecture? Or was He broken by the pains of man’s hypocrisy and readiness to pass judgement against another even when he is a worse sinners?
Truth is the Best Judge: Pressed by the accusers, Jesus looked up and spoke the unexpected: “If there is on among you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” The narrative reports that they left “one by one, beginning with the eldest.” One can only imagine the silence that must have deadened the scene as these words sounded out. The word of Jesus was an address to the heart (the conscience) not to the ears. It was a demand for personal examination of conscience. But who can be just in the sight of God, for all have sinned (Romans 3: 23). The Psalmist reminds us: “In sin I was born, a sinner was I conceived (Psalm 51: 5). Everyman with a stone in hand was a sinner with sins in his heart, and so, there was no one among them who had not sinned. Therefore, they had to leave one by one. And then the sinful encountered the sinless in the court of judgement.
“Neither do I condemn you. Go, but sin no more”: What a lesson, that the only one who could condemn, was the one who did not condemn. Jesus did not see a sinner in front of Him, He saw a human being who needed forgiveness and another chance. Jesus’ forgiveness was not an encouragement, and not a licence but it was based on His love for man, His redemptive mission and believe in man’s ability to change and live a better and righteous life.
Jesus teaches us here that authority is not all about power and the exploitation of the weak and the guilty but about love, pity, empathy and mercy. We learn here too that even the righteous does not have the right to judge and to condemn. It is a lesson here that we all can be forgiven and have a chance to start afresh. The words of Isaiah in the First rewarding encourages us not to recall, dwell on and live in the past because the past has been forgiven (Isaiah 43: 16-21). As we journey through this season of Lent, which is soon coming to the end, let us see ourselves as this woman, a sinner yet forgiven and set free by the love of God. Let us seek that liberating knowledge of Christ that leads to perfection (Philippians 3: 8-14). Let us heed the words of Jesus: Go, but sin no more.”