Year C: Fifth Sunday of Lent
A Woman Caught in Adultery
John 8: 1-11
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 anymore.”
- As humans, we easily move to judgment and condemnation before compassion and mercy? Do you think this tendency is what keeps us resistant to the reality that God does not condemn us? Explain.
- In what situations do you notice yourself using judgement to hold others in their sin, or the failures and mistakes they have made?
- Have you ever had an experience where, treating someone as Jesus would have, put you in conflict with the law or contradicted a church teaching?
- “If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained”. In what ways are you becoming more forgiving as you grow? In what areas do you still struggle with forgiveness?
John 8: 1-11
Margaret Nutting Ralph PHD
We move now from Luke’s Gospel to John’s. However, today’s reading focuses on the same theme that we had last week: Jesus is trying to get the scribes and Pharisees to stop judging others and to start judging themselves. The scribes and Pharisees need to learn that they too are sinners and have need of repentance.
Jesus is teaching a crowd in the temple area when the scribes and Pharisees bring in a woman who has been caught in adultery. They say 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?” John then adds, “They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him.” In other words, even though they call Jesus “teacher,” the scribes and Pharisees are not trying to learn from him. They are trying to trap him.
If Jesus says that the scribes and Pharisees should stone the woman, he will be contradicting Roman law; the Jews do not have the right under Roman occupation, to inflict the death penalty. On the other hand, if Jesus says that they should not stone the woman, he is virtually saying that they should disobey the law of Moses. In the Book of Deuteronomy we read, “If within the city a man comes upon a maiden who is betrothed, and has relations with her, you shall bring them both out to the gate of the city and there stone them to death: the girl because she did not cry out for help though she was in the city, and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. Thus, shall you purge the evil from your midst” (Deut 22:23-24). No matter what Jesus says, the scribes and Pharisees will have something against him.
Initially Jesus says nothing in response to the scribes’ and Pharisees’ question. Instead, “Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.” What was Jesus writing? We are not told. Some guess that Jesus was merely doodling in order to give himself time to think. Others suggest that Jesus wrote, “Where is the man?” After all, the law calls for stoning for both the man and the woman. Why did the scribes and Pharisees bring only the woman?
As Jesus writes, the scribes and Pharisees continue to ask him whether or not they should stone the woman. Jesus finally answers by saying, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then Jesus bends down and starts writing again. John tells us that “in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.” This description has led to the suggestion hat Jesus was writing down the sins of the scribes and Pharisees. Because Jesus pointed out their sins to them, they were not able to throw the first stone. We do not know what Jesus was writing, but we do know that every one of the woman’s accuser’s leaves. The scribes and Pharisees, so intent on obeying the law, are not able to trap Jesus into antagonizing either his fellow Jews by dismissing the law or the Roman authorities by obeying it.
Now Jesus is left alone with the woman. He asks her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” The woman replies, “No one, sir.” Jesus then says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.” Notice that with these words Jesus is obviously not condemning the woman; he puts treating her with love above the observance of the law, the very thing that the scribes and Pharisees are unable to do. However, Jesus does name her action as a sin. By warning the woman not to sin anymore Jesus reminding her, and us, that part of repentance is the firm intention to refrain from sinning in the future.
Holding in Sin, or Forgiving for Life
A friend of mine is fond of paraphrasing a line from the movie Steel Magnolias, “If you can’t say anything good about anybody, you just come over here and sit right next to me”. Holding people in their mistakes is a popular pastime. Few can resist it. Even fewer understand the “handcuffing of people” that is really going on.
Holding people in sin is not the “special gift” of the scribes and Pharisees. It is an all-too-common human procedure. In fact, it is so common it is taken for granted. We do not consciously choose to do it, we just mindlessly engage in it. It is both pervasive and unconscious. We just assume the obituary of a lawyer who died at eighty-two will prominently feature the scandal he as involved in when he was thirty-five. We unreflectively remark that she is doing quite well for an ex-addict, thereby using addiction as the permanent reference point for her life. Jail sentences are never over. We look at the fifty-year-old and see the twenty-two-year-old behind bars. Sin sticks. Ask anyone who has been caught, brought, and made to stand there.
Perhaps that is why the resurrected Christ in John’s Gospel brings the “glue of sin” to the attention of his disciples. He is trying to bring into their awareness an active and alienating habit. The resurrected Christ breathes on them and says, “Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained” (John 20:22-23). This is the condition that characterizes our communal life. We can hold each other in our mistakes or let each other go. We can be a prison to one another or the source of: release. Both are possibilities. But it seems we easily gravitate toward “holding in sin” and have to work at letting go. Perhaps this is part of what John means when he says, “People loved darkness” John 3:19).
I have caught myself many times holding other people in their sin. But the strength and compulsiveness of this habit came home to me a number of years ago. I found a man who had tried to commit suicide—pills and booze. I called an ambulance. They pumped his stomach and got him to the hospital on time. The suicide attempt was unsuccessful.
However, every time I saw him after that, I saw him through the memory image of his attempted suicide. I could not shake it. I knew I was holding him in his sin, paralyzing him in his worst moment. Yet I could not let go. I wish I had a nice moral for this tale, but I do not. Although not many people knew of his attempted suicide, he moved away. I do not know where he is or what he is doing. How does this ”holding in sin” work?
It is quite simple and yet not easily grasped. I know something you have done. It was wrongful action. It can be placed somewhere or the continuum beginning with indiscretion and ending with outright evil. But no matter where it fits on the continuum of wrongdoing, it has lodged squarely in my mind. It has become a permanent mental perspective. Whenever I see you, I see you through the lens of this mistake. I am holding you in your sin because the sin is the filter through which I approach and relate to you. To me you are always the guy with a DUI or the teenager who had an abortion or the cheat who did eighteen months for tax evasion, etc. I cannot let go of your sin and, eighteen months for tax evasion, etc. I cannot let go of your sin and, therefore, I hold you in it.
People whose mistakes are well known and are “held in sin” by large numbers of people often leave for other communities or countries. People cannot or will not let go of their sin, so they seek the company of people who do not know their sin. These new people are not more virtuous than the people they are fleeing. It is only that they do not know the sin. You cannot hold what you do not know. We hide our sins because we know that if they are not hidden, they will be held. Skeletons are kept in the closet because we know other people will hang them on the porch. Then the only access to our house will be through the dead bones of our mistakes.
The opposite of “holding in sin” is “forgiving for life.” This is not the usual understanding of forgiveness that focuses on a past transgression and its consequences. This understanding sees every human being poised on the edge of a future, a future that promises to be more aligned with the deepest truth about him or her. Often, they are moving out of an alienated past that leaves residues both in them and in others. These “leavings” will have to be dealt with.
However, the focus is on the next free step into the future. Other people are called to help them toward this new future, to “forgive” them. The “for” before the verb “give” is an intensive. It signifies a complete and total giving into the future that is emerging. The person is not identified with the past but with the free future they are struggling toward. In this vision the most profound word of forgiveness is the word Jesus speaks to the woman, “Go!’
Selections from Breaking Open the Lectionary: Lectionary Readings in Their Biblical Context for RCIA, Faith Sharing Groups, and Lectors—Cycle C, by Margaret Nutting Ralph, Copyright © 2006 by Margaret Nutting Ralph. Paulist Press, Inc., New York/Mahwah, NJ. Reprinted by permission of Paulist Press, Inc. www.paulistpress.com.
Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.