On Jn 8:1-11.
It’s the last Sunday of lent before Holy Week begins, and in this year of St. Luke the Church offers us today the Gospel of the woman taken in adultery. All the commentators agree that the present position of this story in St. John’s Gospel is not original. Its most likely author was not St. John but St. Luke.
Certainly for our purposes it follows on with perfect consistency from last week’s parable of the Prodigal Son. Like that story, this episode seems to capture, with wonderful simplicity, the essence of Jesus’ message and mission.
It’s an intensely dramatic scene. Here in the very Temple, surrounded by crowds of onlookers, those determined to destroy Jesus present him with a trap they feel he can’t get out of. They know perfectly well his reputation as a friend of sinners. Well: here is one, caught in the very act. They force a distraught and dishevelled woman into the middle. For her it’s a scene of public humiliation. More than that, she’s terrified, for she knows her very life hangs in the balance. But the Scribes and Pharisees aren’t really interested in that at all. For them she’s just a useful weapon to use against Jesus. In her they want to confront him with the reality of sin itself. What, they demand to know, is he going to do about it?
We know what the law of Moses did about it. Moses said that this evil must be banished from Israel (Dt 22:22 etc.) So he set up a penal code, which included capital punishment. Where death was to be by stoning, Moses specified that the witnesses of the crime should be those who cast the first stones. But in addition, Moses outlined an elaborate ritual of animal sacrifice. He understood that all sin is an offense against God, and in common with all the contemporary peoples of the Ancient Near East, he wanted to offer atonement to God through the blood of animals.
But as St. Paul insists, the law of Moses could only ever be a symbol, or type, foreshadowing what was to come. Neither the penal code nor the animal sacrifices could do more than touch externals. But as Paul says in Romans, what the law could not do, because flesh and blood could not lend it the power, this God has done, by sending his own Son in the same human nature as any sinner, to be a sacrifice for sin (8:2).
So what would Jesus do about this sin, or any sin? Would he go against Moses, and by refusing to punish, effectively condone, or even trivialise it?
No indeed. On the contrary, in his death Jesus showed up in an unprecedented way the gravity of sin. It was because of sin, all the sins of all humanity, including sins of the flesh, that Jesus suffered in his flesh. As God incarnate he was the one against whom ultimately every sin is committed. As man he was himself without sin. So Jesus certainly had the right to pronounce a sentence of condemnation: to cast the first stone; to destroy the sinner with the sin. But Jesus also had both the right, and the power, as Moses did not, to pronounce a sentence of forgiveness.
In the words of St. John, Jesus came into the world not to condemn the world, but so that through him the world might be saved (3:17).
What about the Scribes and Pharisees? Jesus in this story does not condemn them for judging adultery to be a serious sin. In the sermon on the Mount he showed that his own sexual ethics were actually even stricter than theirs. Nor does he imply in this incident that those with legitimate authority don’t sometimes have the right and duty to punish offenses. But he does allow those who condemn sin in others to pronounce condemnation against themselves: for they also, for all their self-righteous indignation, are sinners. And in condemning the author of mercy, they are the ones who cut themselves off from their only hope of mercy.
The evangelist tells us that Jesus wrote on the ground with his finger. What did he write?
I’ve found in the various commentaries at least 10 excellent suggestions in answer to that question. One suggestion was supplied by a very early copyist of the manuscript, who inserted into his text the words “he wrote their own sins”. There’s a mediaeval English Mystery play which magnificently dramatises that interpretation. But it’s a bit unlikely, because you can only trace a few words at most with your finger in the dust.
Another ancient interpretation I like refers to the Exodus text (31:18) which says that God wrote the 10 commandments with his finger on the 2 tablets of stone. So as Jesus was accused of going against the law of Moses, he indicated that he was the very one who wrote it. St. Augustine adds that that first law was written on barren stone, but the new law of Christ is written in soil, that is, in human hearts, so that it bears fruit.
Others of the Fathers cite a text in Jeremiah (17:13), which says that those who abandon God are written in the earth. If Jesus had that in mind, he might have written down the names of these scribes and Pharisees, to show that they are written not in heaven, like the redeemed, but on the earth, or as the modern versions translate, in the underworld.
Again, according to one of the sayings of Jesus (Lk 11:20; Mt 12:28), the Holy Spirit has the name of Finger of God. Could the evangelist then be hinting that Jesus overcomes sin through the gift of the Holy Spirit, and inscribes in our hearts his sentence of mercy?
Probably the majority of modern commentators prefer to interpret Jesus’ gesture as mere doodling. By it he simply showed that he saw through the malicious stratagem of his enemies, and refused to have anything to do with it.
So we are left at the end with Jesus and the adulterous woman alone together. In her, as with the Prodigal Son, we see ourselves represented. We stand, as it were, naked and exposed in all our sinfulness before Jesus, who alone has full right to condemn us. And in his words to her, we hear pronounced over us the sentence of grace and mercy. Far from pronouncing these words lightly, he does so at the cost of his own life. And all of that, the sacrificial giving up of his life, the sentence of mercy, the giving of grace and new life in the Spirit, is communicated to us in the holy Eucharist, for here Jesus Christ gives us himself, for our salvation and for the life of the world.