The readings for Sunday, March 13, 2016, Fifth Sunday of Lent, Cycle C, are
Isaiah 43:-16-21; Philippians 3:8-14; and John 8:1-11.
On the fifth Sunday of Lent, the cycle of readings from the Gospel of Luke takes a detour through the Gospel of John. The story of the woman caught in adultery with its theme of repentance and forgiveness fits well into the Lucan cycle of readings, but does not fit so well into the Gospel of John. Some ancient manuscripts in fact place this story within the Gospel of Luke. Whatever its origin, it is now in the Gospel of John. It is for us to determine its meaning in the Gospel and context in which it now sits. The previous chapter ended with a statement about Jesus’ critics who had just attempted to have him arrested, but failed. John 7:53, “Each went to his own house….” They were the moneyed aristocracy, the power-elite. But of Jesus the author writes as he opens Chapter 8, “But Jesus went out to the Mount of Olives.” Quite a contrast between power and poverty, the power of the religious establishment versus the vulnerability of their Critic.
The setting of the story: the Mt. of Olives was a short distance east of the temple complex. From other information in the Gospels we know that Jesus sometimes sought safety there when his life was in danger. He also had friends living on the Mt. of Olives — Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Early on the following morning Jesus returned to the city. He entered the temple. He was now famous enough to draw a crowd anywhere. The people gathered around him. He sat down and taught them. The content of his teaching is not given. Such is the setting. The stage is set. Time for action. If this were a stage drama, at this point from the wings emerges a group of religious scholars and conservative practitioners of the Law of Moses (the Torah). What follows is not for a general audience, but more for a PG-13 audience.
The group to which John refers as “scribes and Pharisees” bring to Jesus “a woman who had been caught in adultery.” They placed her in the center of the setting, somewhere between Jesus and the audience gathered to hear him. They explain that the woman had just been apprehended “in the act.” Were they spying on this woman like the lusty old men in the story of Susanna in Daniel 13? Notice that no man is apprehended and brought to Jesus, although in the matter of adultery an accomplice of the opposite gender is necessarily involved. For the author, the point of the story can be met without an accomplice being present at the judgment scene.
The presenters explain that Moses commanded an adulteress to be stoned to death. Their argument is based on a compilation of Old Testament passages. John notes that the purpose of this scene was to be a test for Jesus. Will he uphold the Torah, or is he a “liberal”? If the latter, then they could attempt to destroy his reputation with the multitudes who considered him a prophet sent by God. Jesus’ response to their question: “Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.”
Jesus’ tempters persisted, so Jesus feels compelled to respond, “Let the one who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her.” Then he bent over and continued writing on the ground. Because of Jesus’ verbal response about casting the first stone, a youth in a juvenile detention center in California explained in a Bible class why Jesus bent over, “He bent over just in case some jerk started throwing rocks!” The wisdom of youth! One woman in this writer’s Scripture class claimed to know what Jesus wrote, “The name of the woman.” What was her name? She replied, “Ramona.” Asked where this info was obtained, she answered, “At the beauty shop!” Profound silence was the only proper response. A better answer might be this: the Old Covenant with its harsh penalties was written in stone by the finger of God, Exodus 31:18. The New Covenant with its emphasis on forgiveness and mercy is written in dust by the finger of God in Jesus Christ. Stone can be so hard. Dust blows away.
The accusers left one by one, beginning with the elders. St. Augustine comments, “Two were left, the miserable and the merciful,” or “misery and mercy.” Jesus inquires if anyone condemned her. “No one. Lord.” Jesus’ famous response, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, but sin no more.” Too easy? Such easy forgiveness was too much of a shock to early-century Christians accustomed to severe penalties for adultery. One fourth century document got it right, “This, you bishops, must be your pattern…being meek, compassionate, merciful,…willing to receive and to comfort,” (Apostolic Constitutions) Such advice is valid not just for bishops, but for every Christian.