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Note: On the Third, Fourth and Fifth Sundays of Lent this year, the Church offers a choice of using the scripture readings for Year A or Year C. Since we will celebrate the Third Scrutiny of the Christian Initiation of Adults at this Sunday’s 7 PM Mass with Wil Martins who will be baptized this Easter, we will be using the Year A readings in the Chapel. The reflection that is offered here, however, is for the Year C readings.
A salvific encounter
Joseph and His Brothers by Thomas Mann is one of my favorite novels. It is a rewriting of the story of Joseph in Genesis. If you don’t have any plan for the Easter break, go for it. It is long—about 1500 pages—but it is delightful. It is a masterful work not only of literature, but also of philosophy and psychology. One of the memorable sayings of the German author is this: Sinners can be terribly touchy about the sins of others. You need to find the context of this saying yourself!
In today’s Gospel, the scribes and the Pharisees brought to Jesus a woman caught in adultery. They were meticulous about her sin. For his part, Jesus pointed them to their own sins. He did not judge them by himself but let them judge themselves through his invitation to self-awareness. If they left defeated one after another, it was because of their sins. Thinking that they were righteous, they pointed out to Jesus the woman’s sin. After Jesus’ suggestion, they left him as sinners. But the climax of the story is not the departure of the scribes and the Pharisees from the scene. Its culminating moment is the dialogue between Jesus and the woman. Ultimately, this story is about Jesus’ teaching, his understanding of the law and his way of being with the sinner.
Jesus and his teaching
Jesus is teaching in the temple area. We do not know the content of his teaching. What is important for John is Jesus’ act of teaching. Jesus teaches as a master. It is on this quality that he will be tested. We will understand the fundamental elements of his teaching through his action in favor of someone who “was caught in the very act of committing adultery.”
The scribes and the Pharisees put Jesus into a situation where a personal opinion was needed: “in the law, Moses commanded us… So what do you say?” By this question, they challenged Jesus in his way of teaching and living. It was not only about the woman’ life, but also about Jesus’ life. And we are informed that Jesus’ interlocuters wanted to test him in order to find some charge against him. They did not need Jesus to condemn her. They sought to condemn him through her sin. They placed her at the center of his gathering to move him around. They accused her in order to challenge him. They were less interested in her fate than in his. Her sin became an instrument for their evil action against Jesus. Their concern for the law was just a pretext.
Jesus and the law
The law of Moses clearly foresees the condemnation to death of anyone, either man or woman, who commits adultery: “If a man commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (Lv 20:10). The manner of death for the woman, however, is less obvious. It depends on her marital condition whether she is a married woman or a betrothed girl. Stoning is reserved for a betrothed girl (Dt 22:23-24). Jesus should have been aware of that law, but he did not want to be a judge. He did not ask about the marital condition of the condemned woman. Neither did he inquire about her partner who was also condemned to death according to the law. The scribes and the Pharisees should have known who he was because the couple were caught in the act of adultery.
Jesus remained sitting and silent. He wrote on the ground with his finger. We do not know what he wrote. As we do not know the content of his teaching in the temple area, we are not aware of the content of his writing on the ground. The absence of the indication in the text does not allow us to provide any symbolic interpretation. Perhaps Jesus wrote on the ground to distract people from a dramatic situation. Or he doodled to turn away from a thorny question. In any event, people silently and attentively looked at Jesus’ gesture. And when they continued to ask him, he finally talked to them. He challenged those who challenged him: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” They all left the scene defeated. They drifted away, one by one. The older ones started first probably because they were more aware of their own sinful condition. The accusers became the accused. Only two remained at the scene: the one who wholly knew no sin and the one whose sin was publicly known. As Saint Augustine said, “Two were left: misery and mercy.”
Jesus and the woman
The people who condemned the woman left, but the circle they drew was still there. She was still in the middle of the circle, a circle of condemnation to death. Jesus needed to intervene to break that circle. He addressed her as someone capable of entering into a relationship with him: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” For Jesus, she was no longer the object of an accusation, but the subject of a conversation. He accepted her as an adult, not as an adulteress! His question allowed her to display her reverence for him by addressing him as Lord. His way of being covered her with complete dignity even though she was half-clad.
Jesus’ words to the woman were a liberation: “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” This liberation was both physical and spiritual. By his invitation, Jesus first restored her to a physical life which previously the Pharisees and the scribes sought to take away from her. Then Jesus granted her a possibility to live her spiritual life by asking her not to return to her sinful actions. He offered her an opportunity to rectify her relationship with God. This offer did not diminish the importance of the law, but it associated the law with mercy. Being the representative of the just and merciful God, Jesus sent the woman toward a salvific future, a future without sin.
Jesus continues to intervene in our lives to free us from the burden of our sins. Without underestimating the importance of the law, he covers us with mercy and forgiveness. He sets us on the right path to a rectified relationship with God. He offers us an opportunity for a newness of life by asking us not to return to our sinful actions. He treats us as adults capable of being responsible for our actions. He helps us to get out of a vicious circle where condemnation and violence coldly rule. He leads us to a gracious circle where reconciliation and tolerance are the golden rule. Through Jesus, our sins are totally forgiven. With him, we resolutely turn toward our salvific future. In him, we wholly become a new people, a people of justice and mercy in the manner of God.
Prayer: God of mercy, lead us to your fountain of living water where we are purified and refreshed.
Resolution: Find a way to turn people away from their desire for violence or vengeance.