Is 43:16-21; Phil 3:8-14; John 8:1-11
“Neither do I condemn you”
Sometimes, society can be very cruel. The common talk and gossips of a society have sometimes stifled the progress of many and kept them in a kind of prison where they seem to see no hope for a release. This is what we call “the tyranny of society.” People are virtual prisoners of “what others may say or are saying” about them. Think of the Prodigal Son of last week’s gospel, he survived because he dared to ignore what people may say about his returning home wretched. Isn’t it funny how we can be more worried about what other people think of us than what GOD thinks? Today’s gospel gives an episode of such “social tyranny”. A bunch of self-righteous scribes and Pharisees had apprehended a woman in the very act of adultery. Accompanied by a crowd, they bring her before Jesus. They knew what was to be done as ordered by Moses (Lev 20:10). Such women were to be stoned to death. Being ‘law-abiding citizens/Jews’, they were ready to execute the law to the letter. But before the execution, they humiliated the woman, dragged her before Jesus and let her stand there before a gearing crowd, as if to teach her an unforgettable lesson on how dreadful social tyranny can be.
- A CONFRONTATION BETWEEN JESUS AND HIS OLD ENEMIES
From this point, a drama ensues—a classic confrontation between Jesus and his old enemies, the Scribes and the Pharisees. They had come believe that Jesus did not care much about the law. So they were going to use this test case to entrap Jesus. You can almost hear them saying, “Now we’ve got you.” Several times they had tried to trap Jesus, without success. “Master, which is the greatest of the commandments?” (Mtt 22:36). “Is it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar?” (Mtt 22:17) “If a woman marries seven times and dies, who is her husband in Heaven?” Mk 12:20) And He escaped every trap they laid for him. But today, they say, “You can’t get away. We’ve got you.” But He did get away, so skilfully that they didn’t even pause long enough to shout a curse against Him. They just walked away quietly. Jesus was one step ahead of them!
Their real concern was to trap Jesus. They wanted to put him in a dilemma”. If he says, “Stone her” then he has trouble with the Roman Government for commanding an “unapproved killing”. He also puts his own integrity in jeopardy. After all Jesus spend time with tax-collectors and sinners. And if he says “Don’t stone her” he appears to disregard the law of God. Jesus just bent over and traced on the ground with his finger. He straightened up and said very thoughtfully, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” The ensuing scene was wonderful. The oldest began to drift away, one by one. People knew their sins. They were not able to pretend to be perfect. Before long all the people were gone. Jesus spent a moment of great dignity with the woman, just the two of them.
One is, however, inclined to ask, “Where is the man?” Nobody can commit adultery alone. But the man was nowhere in sight. Only the woman was to be stoned to death. Why would you punish the woman, and with death for that matter, when the accomplice got away? There was another remarkable issue involved here: that the accusers were themselves not all that clean. They had all sorts of skeletons in their cupboards, which probably included a fair amount of adultery. One rather humorous theory suggests that when Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground, what he wrote were the sins of the accusers themselves. As soon as each one saw his/her own sins written, he/she left in a hurry. The eldest were the first to leave because they had many more and weightier sins to their account. (Narrate: The story of the large mirror in church.)
- CERTAIN IMPORTANT SYMBOLS IN THE GOSPEL TEXT
- a) In the OT, the covenant and laws were written by “the finger of God,” on the tablets of stone (Ex 31:18, Deut 9:10). The words: “writing with his finger” is a symbol of Divine authority to write and interpret laws. In our passage today, Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground “by his finger.” This is a gesture that shows Jesus’ Divine authority to enact and interpret the laws, equal to the Father. Jesus was actually “re-writing” the laws in the OT. He changed the 10 commandments with only one word, “love”. If he is to use other words, they could be “mercy” and “forgiveness”. Since Jesus was the author of the new law, he knew how to interpret and implement the law on adultery, far better than the learned Scribes and Pharisees.
- b) In the Book of Genesis God created the first man “from the soil,” and “from the ground.” When Jesus wrote “by his finger on the ground,” it means that the laws were written, not to punish nor destroy a sinner, but recreatehim into a new person, thus, giving him a chance to live not anymore as a sinner but a new person in grace. Jesus said to the woman: “neither do I condemn you. Go and from now on do not sin anymore”. God is a God of a second chance. We commit sin but it is not sin that God is after. It is our power to change and to be good next time that God seeks.
3 JESUS’ VERDICT ON THE WOMAN
Jesus did not condemn the woman. But he did not condone her sins either. He did not say, “You are doing just fine. Go and carry on sinning!” Jesus was hardly soft on adultery – he condemned even the willful fantasies which lead a person in that direction: “I say to you, everyone who looks at a woman/man with lust has already committed adultery with her/him in his heart” (Matt 5:28). At the same time, “zero tolerance” was not part of his vocabulary. His word to her was strict but tender. Jesus said, “Go away, and from this moment, sin no more!” This is so different from our society which permits everything, but forgives nothing.
This is a beautiful story of God’s mercy. What Jesus DID NOT DO is as important as what HE DID DO. He did not rant and rave at the woman. Nor did He attack the Law of Moses, which provided for the stoning of someone who was caught in adultery. Nor did He attack her would-be executioners. He shouted no one to get out of the scene. These are the things that Jesus did NOT do. But what did He do?
- a) First of all, he overcame evil with good. He saw misery and he wiped out that misery with understanding and forgiveness.
- b) He made the would-be executioners do some thinking. They may have been vicious men but they were also intelligent and it would be a fair guess that never again in their lifetimes would they charge anyone publicly with crime without hearing that statement ringing in their ears, “The one among you who is innocent let him cast the first stone.”
- c) Finally, and most importantly, Jesus restored to that woman her dignity. We can put up with losing many things in this life. We can lose our income, our freedom, even our health and still hold on. But one thing no person can tolerate is losing his/her dignity, his/her sense of self-worth, his/her self-esteem. Take that away and there is nothing left to live for. Money is useful but not indispensable. Imprisonment can’t enslave the human spirit. The mind can stay healthy and active in a diseased body. However, our personal dignity is so identified with our total being that to take it away causes an irreparable loss.
If we see a neighbor doing something wrong, it is our bounden duty to correct him. Charity demands that of us. But the same charity forbids us to condemn him. It we do not correct an erring brother or sister when we are in a position to do so, we sin against charity. But by the same token, if we condemn an erring brother/sister, without giving him/her the benefit of the doubt, we also sin against charity. “If one of you strays away from the truth, and another brings him back to it, he may be sure that anyone who can bring back a sinner from the wrong way that he has taken will be saving a soul from death and covering up a great number of sins.” (James 5:19-20).
- WE ARE ALL INSTINCTIVE STONE-THROWERS
Very often, we cannot tolerate the sinner. Sin stinks when it is committed by others and we want to clean it up, and do so quickly! But, not so, when it is committed by ourselves! We seldom measure the faults of others with the same rule or weigh them on the same scale as our own. Aren’t there so many people among us who keep handling stones, as if Jesus hadn’t said a thing?
We get so angry with those who condemned the woman at the time of Jesus, but are certain things we say about people not exactly like stones that hurt and leave a mark on them? Why are there so many people in the Christian communities who seem to find pleasure in seeking out and publicizing the mistakes of others? Gossips said amidst prayer and in pious circles hurt. They kill and ruin the good name and life others. Have you ever heard a pious humbug saying, in between “Hail Mary’s”: ‘See that girl/boy in the third pew! When we get out of Church I will tell you …’ (And do you know of any such appointment to give account of good things…?)
- THE MESSAGE FROM TODAY’S GOSPEL PASSAGE
- a) We are sinners ourselves. Not a single one of us is without sin. St. John says it emphatically: “If we say, ‘we have not sin’, we are deceiving ourselves, and truth has no place in us.” (1John 1:8). How can we then, who are sinners ourselves and in need of God’s mercy, turn round to condemn others and deny them the same mercy of God? We simply are not qualified to do so. We lack the moral standing to do so.
- b) It has been said very wisely that whenever we point an accusing finger at someone, all the other four fingers of our own hand are pointing right back at us. So why not be like Jesus, and condemn no one? “Do not judge, and you will not be judged yourselves; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned yourselves; grant pardon, and you will be pardoned.” (Lk 6:37) Again, “If you do not forgive others, your Father will not forgive your failings either” (Mt 6:15). We must realize that while sin is horrible, the sinner is invited to come for forgiveness. We are not the judge; God alone is. We do not have all the facts; God alone does. We cannot judge impartially. God alone can and does!
- c) Why would the church give us this story for our spiritual nourishment on the last Sunday before Holy Week when we commemorate the suffering and death of Jesus on our behalf? When we read the story, identifying ourselves not with the Pharisees but with the woman, caught in adultery, then we begin to see the story for the GOOD NEWS that it really is. Like the woman, we all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Like her, we all deserve death, for the wages of sin is death (Romans 6:23). But when Jesus comes into the picture, he overturns our death sentence. He sets us free with his words of absolution: “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again” (John 8:11). The story shows how Jesus stands up for sinners before the law. In so doing he draws upon himself the hostility of the hard line officials who will eventually arrest him and give him a taste of their justice.
- d) Another lesson we can learn is the hope and joy that it is an understanding God who will judge us eventually and not one of our fellow human beings who are much too quick to condemn.
- e) One final lesson is that God’s infinite mercy should not induce us to be indifferent or careless about sin in our lives.
As we prepare for Holy Week, let us thank Jesus for his mercy and love. And let us promise him that we shall commit ourselves to doing exactly as he tells us: ‘to go and to sin no more’.