Today’s gospel passage is famous, exemplifying, as it does, what is certainly the most popular, and 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, but even more than that, they wanted the crowd to 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 Jesus, they had not fully averted to the significance of their actions; for, in the book of Numbers 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 first have the woman come forward and stand before the LORD. (5:15-16)
The Scribes and Pharisees, having taken charge of the adulteress handed over to them, and being completely absorbed in their planned ambush of Jesus, actually set her before Him quite unaware of the significance of their action before the Law!
After having thus 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 Jesus did not look the woman straight in the eye; He was not seeking to cause her further embarrassment. He would look her in the eye later when offering her His saving grace and giving her a final warning.
At this moment, the scribes and Pharisees were seeking to make use of this woman’s adultery in order to call for Jesus’ opinion on the proper procedure they should follow in such a matter, so that those of them who were experts of the Law might be able to 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; the Scribes and Pharisees, on the other hand, were publicly proud and secretly 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 – and would-be’s -- remember that famous ending to the story and both misunderstand and abuse it. What so easily and so forcefully strikes them is the vague, general, impression of Jesus rescuing an adulteress from the Scribes and Pharisees, self-appointed upholders of the Law. 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 own perversity by imagining that the gravity of sin is thereby seen to be easily excusable and their own personal sinfulness less condemnable, easily condonable. Of course, they cannot deny that Jesus did say “sin no more”, but, for them such words are what we today might call ‘politically correct’ words, necessary in such circumstances: satisfying Pharisaic 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 understand, 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-according-to-the-Law though they were. She and they, yes, and all mankind, were still slaves, not, indeed, to Egypt any longer, but most certainly 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, slaughtering them and all her worldly enemies; then would the prescriptions of the Law 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. Neither slaves nor sinners could do that. Yes, God’s 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 human beatitude. How was Jesus going to do this?
Do you remember the Gospel reading just a fortnight ago? There, Jesus told 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 orchard tree of the parable figured the whole root and stock of sinful Adam, represented today by the adulterous woman, by the self-righteous Scribes and Pharisees her accusers, and by the surrounding crowd of curious but faithless observers.
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, such was the very purpose of His life, death, and Resurrection: He would loose the bonds of sin by pouring out His own Most Precious Blood in 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, refusing to recognize and unwilling to 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, not as a heavenly gift inviting them to total love of God and 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 excessively 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 enveloped in a protective cloth of supposed human rights and an overly sentimental understanding of Jesus’ saving purpose. Many sinners today neither have nor want true knowledge or clear understanding of Jesus; they are stuffed up with pride at their supposed human right to live as they see fit and delight in their ignorance both of God and the reality of sin.
But we, Catholics and Christians, most grateful disciples of Jesus, 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 God’s will and 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 be present to us and with us by His Spirit 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 still 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 … 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 ….
That we might attain to the Resurrection from the dead and to praise God for all eternity, Paul 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, aspiring to maturity in Christ, adopt this attitude with him.