Today’s gospel passage is famous, exemplifying, as it does, what is perhaps the best-loved aspect of Jesus: His compassionate understanding of our human weakness. Let us therefore take a closer look at it.
First of all notice that the scribes and Pharisees brought the woman -- quite possibly surreptitiously trapped in the act of adultery – to Jesus and set her standing in full view of the assembled crowd; they wanted everyone to be able to see her clearly, and knowing the serious and emotive charge against her, have their attention fixed on Jesus whom they confidently hoped to trap in His words. However, it would seem that, in their eagerness to entrap and condemn, they had not averted to the full significance of their actions; for, in the book of Numbers (5:15-16), the Law prescribes that, in the case of a woman guilty of adultery:
The man shall bring his (adulterous) wife to the priest, and the priest shall bring her near, and set her before the LORD.
The Scribes and Pharisees, having taken charge of the adulteress handed over to them, and completely absorbed in their planned ambush of Jesus, actually set her before Him, totally unaware of the significance of their action before the Law. After having ostentatiously proclaimed the charge against her, they then asked Jesus to tell them the best way of dealing with her. In response, Jesus, we are told,
bent down and began to write on the ground with His finger.
Notice that in His compassion He did not look the woman straight in the eye; He was not seeking to give her further, gratuitous, embarrassment; He would look her in the eye later when giving her His saving grace and final warning
At this moment, however, the scribes and Pharisees -- seeking to publicise the fact of this woman’s adultery -- call for Jesus’ opinion on the proper procedure they should follow in the matter, so that they might, hopefully, ensnare Him in legal technicalities. Jesus, in other words, was their principal target, and that is why:
When they continued asking Him, (Jesus) raised Himself up.
Yes, when they persisted in questioning Him, Jesus straightened up to face them directly. The woman was publicly humiliated and contrite enough already, the Scribes and Pharisees, on the other hand, were proud and malicious: Jesus most certainly did want to face up to them, He wanted to both knock down their pride and thwart their malice; and so, standing up and facing them, He said:
He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.
Those baying and eager accusers melted quietly away one by one until Jesus was finally left alone with the still-standing woman, to whom He said:
Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.
Many sinners remember that famous ending to the story and both misunderstand and abuse it. What so easily and so forcefully strikes their imagination is the vague, general, impression of Jesus rescuing an adulteress from the self-righteous Scribes and Pharisees. They rightly consider that it shows how Jesus, knowing our sinfulness and compassionating our weakness, is always prepared to forgive rather than to punish. However, they then show their perversity by imagining that the gravity of sin is thereby seen to be easily excused and their personal sinfulness, in some measure, condoned. Of course, they cannot deny that Jesus said “sin no more”, but, for them, such words are what we might call ‘politically correct’: satisfying public proprieties but having no real significance or meaning.
Now, what, for us, is the real meaning and significance of Jesus’ actions here? Recall what the prophet Isaiah said in our first reading:
See, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers. Wild beasts honour me, jackals and ostriches; for I put water in the desert and rivers in the wasteland for my chosen people to drink, the people whom I formed for myself, that they might announce my praise.
Water, then, as now, was precious in Israel: it meant life for a people who could see in the desert wastelands so close at hand the ever-present threat of death: for them, the greatest miracle imaginable was to make water flow in the desert and streams run in the wastelands. Moreover, this new thing would lead even the wild animals to praise and honour God, before finally achieving its ultimate purpose of forming a new people to sing worthily the praises of their God:
This people I have formed for Myself that they might announce My praise.
What would this new thing be? How was God going to bring it about?
The Scribes and Pharisees had recognized aright that the woman taken in adultery was a sinner. What they did not recognize, however, was that this woman’s bad living was a symptom of the whole world’s sinfulness, a sinfulness from which they themselves were not exempt, learned and devout though they were. She and they, yes, and all mankind, were still slaves; not, indeed, to Egypt any longer, but still to sin. The Scribes and Pharisees could not understand what the prophet Isaiah had foreseen: he had spoken of a new thing, a new act of God that would make all who heard of it forget even the miracle at the Red Sea, which the authorities in Israel revered as the supreme act of God that could only be repeated, never transcended. God, they thought, could and would repeat what He had done at the Red Sea: as He had slaughtered the Egyptians there long ago, so the time would come when He would lead Israel to triumph over the Romans and all her worldly enemies, and then the prescriptions of the Law would be perfectly fulfilled and God would be King. Isaiah, however, had spoken of a new act of God that would totally transcend the former physical deliverance, because this new act that He would perform through Jesus would save not simply Israel but also the whole of mankind from a captivity far worse than Israel’s former slavery in Egypt, that is, from the spiritual and potentially eternal thraldom to sin. God’s new spiritual act would prepare, as you heard Isaiah foretell, a people able and worthy to sing God’s praises. Sinners, slaves, could not do that. Yes, that new act would bring about a new creation, a new People of God able to sing a new song, expressing both the beauty and goodness of divine glory and the fullness of human beatitude.
How was Jesus going to do this?
Do you remember the Gospel reading just a fortnight ago? There we heard Jesus tell a parable about a landowner wanting to cut down an unfruitful tree whilst the gardener pleaded:
Sir, leave it for this year also, and I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it; it may bear fruit in the future. If not you can cut it down.
Jesus knew it would be Himself Who, in real life, would fertilize the failing tree of God’s own planting with His own most Precious Blood; and that tree figured the whole root and stock of sinful Adam: adulterous woman, Scribes and Pharisees, Jews and Gentiles: all mankind.
We are now in a position to understand the whole picture. How could Jesus condemn this woman for whom He was soon to give His life on the Cross? In fact it would be easier to save her because she had just been made aware of and, we trust, ashamed of her sinfulness. Jesus was going to give all sinners, like her, one last chance: He would loose the bonds of sin by the outpouring of His own Most Precious Blood in His sacrifice on Calvary. His final words on both these occasions have the same significance:
It may bear fruit in the future. If not, you can cut it down.
Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.
The Scribes and Pharisees, on the other hand, unable to recognize and admit their own sinfulness, thereby made it much more difficult for Jesus to set them free. And why were they so blind to their own sins and failings? Because they saw the Law as a list of commandments to be obeyed and prescriptions to be carried out, they took it up as a challenge that would demonstrate their own personal integrity, instead of receiving it as a heavenly gift, inviting and provoking them to a grateful response of total love for God and humble service of their neighbour. As a result they were centred on and satisfied with what they regarded as their own achievements: they gave tithes of everything they earned, they prayed at prescribed times and observed the requirements of liturgical purity, and in this respect their achievements – thanks to the grace God had bestowed on His chosen people -- were indeed more than those of all others. But in all this they had only learnt to love themselves, not God; they trusted in their own punctilious performance, not in God’s goodness to them and mercy for all; and instead of serving their neighbours they could only criticise and condemn them along with the adulterous woman. Therefore, for their own sakes, Jesus had to try to make them realize and admit the truth about themselves:
Let the one among you who is without sin, be the first to throw a stone at her.
Now, dear People of God, let us look at our own sinful selves and at our sinful times. Jesus in no way condones sin. When He dealt so kindly with that adulterous woman He was in fact giving her a last chance. However, those firm last words of Jesus, ‘go and sin no more’ have, for many, become wrapped up in the cosy, soft, and sentimental memory of Jesus saving a woman from self-righteous Scribes and Pharisees: many sinners today neither have nor want true knowledge or clear understanding of Jesus, they prefer to have nothing more than a vague impression of His kindness and mercy, a dull awareness that allows them to feel comfortable despite their continued sin.
We must never forget that our God is a God of both Truth and Beauty, and that, as physical beauty is built upon the sure basis of a good bone structure, so spiritual beauty calls for a firm foundation of obedience to Christian truth. The Goodness and Holiness of God are likewise co-ordinated, for His goodness toward us is only fully realized by calling us upwards, out of our earthly condition, towards Himself and a share in His holiness. He is indeed compassionate, He knows our sinfulness and our weakness, our ignorance and our blindness, that is why He sent His own Son to die for us, and why He sustains and guides Mother Church, so that through her, His Son might -- by His Spirit -- be always present to us, and ever abiding with us, throughout the ages. However, His Son in no way intends to allow His disciples to live for an earthly destiny: He was sent and He intends to lead His own with Himself heavenwards. Remember what the prophet Isaiah in our first reading said:
I have formed My chosen people for Myself that they might announce My praise.
That is indeed our ultimate calling in Jesus: to sing the praises of God in heaven for all eternity in total joy, peace, and fulfilment. Thinking of that, St. Paul told us in the second reading:
I even consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having any righteousness of my own based on the Law but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God, depending on faith to know him and the power of his resurrection and (the) sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
Spurred on by that desire to attain the resurrection from the dead, to praise God for all eternity, he advises us:
Forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus. Let us, then, who are mature, adopt this attitude.