Last Sunday we heard the Parable of the Prodigal Son from the Gospel of Luke. Our selection here from the Gospel of John offers another lesson about God’s mercy and forgiveness – not a parable but a report of a personal encounter between Jesus, some scribes and Pharisees, and a woman. In this case, Jesus’ response to those who accuse the woman of adultery is a lesson in profound mercy and forgiveness. A forceful reminder that we too have been saved by Jesus’ compassion.
The Gospel account says these people brought this woman to Jesus to trap him. If he was a prophet, then he should be able to discern if she was guilty or not. They sound like a bunch of four-year-olds – “Teacher, look what she did! We saw her do it.” And just how did they know? Where were they snooping around? Or did they take the word of the local gossip mongers? What would Jesus do?
You see, Jesus had forgiven some people of their sins, like the man born blind and the crippled man. But the sins that those people had not been accused of were not considered crimes. Here was a woman accused of a major crime. Her accusers say she was even caught in the very act. So were there witnesses willing to testify against her? Or had a trial already taken place and a verdict of GUILTY already upon her head. The crowd was growing. Everyone was anxiously waiting and watching: would Jesus fulfill the law or would he do what he’d done before and forgive her?
Her accusers seem to have no regard for the fact that maybe this woman did not initiate the sin. They could not entertain the idea that perhaps it was the man! If Jesus forgives this woman, he will restore her in two ways: spiritually and by saving her life he will restore her place in society. In either case, here she was, dragged into the public limelight, counting on the compassion of the man of God.
Jesus appears to be caught between a rock and a hard place. What’s he to do? First he challenges the accusers: “Let the one among you who is without sin start the stoning.” The crowd cheers; then grows silent – nothing is happening. What must have been going through the minds those people that day? The wait to see what he’s going to say or do.
He stoops down and writes in the dirt. The crowd is pushing and shoving and jockeying for view. “Move! I can’t see. What’s he writing?” Was he just doodling or was he writing something meaningful? The Gospel does not say.
But take notice of Jesus’ last words to the woman, “Go away and don’t sin anymore.” Jesus does not say to her, or to us, “Leave your life of sin, then I will no longer condemn you.” He says, “I do not condemn you; now leave behind your life of sin.”
Jesus did not simply ignore sin or overlook it. Jesus chose not to condemn the woman, but He did not tell her that her sin was unimportant or that it was just a venial sin nor did he make up excuses for it. “She’s had a hard life. She comes for a dysfunctional family.
Maybe you can identify with this little story, (I’ve been told it’s a true exchange)? A 4-year-old told his mother, “Mom, I decided I’m not going to sin any more. I’m not going to be like those bad guys Jesus was talking to. I’m going to be a good child of God.” “Mmm, that’s very nice,” Mom answered. “What made you decide that?” “Cause Father said that Jesus told everyone if you don’t sin, you can throw the first stone.” “I want to be the one to throw the first stone.”
Maybe you never thought that way but has it raised your hackles because “Nobody listens to me and I have the answer”? That’s when God’s wee small voice may seem to begin to sound exactly like your own. Or have you felt like “I forgave her once for that same thing and she’s doing it again!” You may have noticed that when you point your finger at “her,” there are three fingers on your hand pointing right back at you. Self-examination opens us to self-revelation. It sheds light on our shadow side and can bring into the spotlight the fact that we have the very same fault we are condemning in the other. Jesus reminds us: “Judge not, lest you be judged.”
~ Reflection by Sister Roberta Bailey, OSB, Prioress