[Sunday Gospel, March 17th, 2013]
Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them.
Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”
They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
The scribes and Pharisees came to Jesus to put him to the test, as they did on other occasions. The law of Moses made it clear that the adulteress must die, and if Jesus accepted it, he would question his own message which focused on God’s mercy and the welcoming embrace towards sinners. On the other hand, if Jesus did not accept the death of the adulteress it would be far worse: he would be rebelling against the very law of God, and that would have meant the end of all his movement; no Jew could be a follower of someone who directly refuses Moses’ Law.
The situation is tense, dramatic. The woman, placed in the middle, perhaps tearful, or perhaps simply paralyzed, looked around. The people listening to Jesus are waiting: what is he going to answer? The scribes and Pharisees, with a malicious grin, are proud of such an ingenious trap.
Jesus, however, as if uninterested, bends down and begins to write on the ground.
The scribes and Pharisees are impatient. “Why does not Jesus respond? We need an answer! What is he writing on the ground?”
Jesus is tired of their antics and stands. He responds with one of his best phrases and goes to heart of the matter: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And he bends down again and writes on the ground.
The accusers were shocked by Jesus’ words, and perhaps also by his action, and started to leave. They brought to Jesus a woman who was, obviously, a sinner. They were not judging an ambiguous case: Moses’ Law was clear. They were prepared to execute her. A simple action of Jesus and a simple phrase uttered by him turns their life upside down.
Jesus did not question the law and the sentence it carried, he only asked that they should question themselves about their own sin. Perhaps that’s why the elder left before the young people: they have had a longer life, and more opportunities to sin. Anyway, they all walked away till the last one.
In the end, Jesus was the only one who had real authority to judge the woman. But he chose not to. However, he did not accept sin, and he told her that “from now on, do not sin anymore.”
Jesus does not underestimate sin. Forgiveness is not as simple as saying, “nothing matters.” That’s not true, it matters, and matters a lot. The law of Moses says that the sinner deserves death, and Jesus does not deny this law. Sin destroys us inside, undermines our authenticity and makes us what we are not; it makes us inhuman. Furthermore, sin leaves traces, feeds on itself and can become a destructive habit. The death that sin brings is not a “punishment from God” that comes from without, it is the result of missing our own essence, it disrupts our lives, and we become the opposite of what we are. We were created as images of God, who is goodness and love, but we have the freedom to embody evil, hatred and resentment.
Jesus does not tell the adulteress that “nothing happened”, he does not pat her on the back saying “it’s alright.” Jesus does not deny that sin deserves condemnation, but he forgives. His last sentence stresses the “from now on.” Why? What happened in the “now”? Precisely the free gift of Jesus’ forgiveness comes into action.
The forgiveness of Jesus is a new event, is a change, a transformation in the life of the sinner. “Before” and “now” are two different realities. In the “before” sin reigns, in the “now” the free merciful forgiveness of God flows. It is precisely that forgiveness, like a transforming event, which makes it possible for the woman to “not sin anymore.” It is not simply a “come on, try it” attitude, but the grace of God that comes into our lives which makes repentance possible. Man without God cannot escape the vicious circle of sin; the love of God is poured out on him in the form of forgiveness to give him the opportunity to break this cycle and start over again.
But what the sinner does not know is that there is someone who will die in his or her place, it is Jesus himself, carrying the sins of all, who will give his life on the cross. The death and resurrection of Jesus are the true turning point of history, the real split between the “before” and the “now”.
(Sunday 5th Lent – Year C)