Lent 5 Sunday C - Woman Caught in Adultery

Lent 5 Sunday C Homilies and Stories
Thomas O’Loughlin,
Introduction to the Celebration

Today we read one of the most moving passages in the whole of the gospels: a woman, a wife who had been caught committing adultery is brought before Jesus so that he can be tested to see if he will ‘do the right thing’ and say she should be stoned. Jesus asks for the man who is not a sinner among the accusers to begin the stoning, and the group melts away one by one. Jesus does not condemn the woman for her conduct, but challenges her to begin life afresh. This is the challenge Jesus puts to us each Lent:
begin life afresh and let others begin life afresh after they have hurt us. Let us reflect that we are all sinners, we are in need of mercy, and we need to make fresh starts.
Andrew Greeley

Many Jewish scholars are offended by this passage from the Gospel. By what right did Jesus attack those who were merely providing the logistics for the temple sacrifices and thus it would appear he was questioning the sacrificial rites themselves, though they were established by the Mosaic law. 

 By what right did he do these things. Contemporary Judaism of course does not do animal sacrifices any more and perhaps would not even if the temple were rebuilt. 

 However, It is somewhat difficult to understand what the meaning of this text is, save perhaps it intends to show that for all his gentleness and kindness Jesus had a passionate and even on occasion furious side.
Gospel Notes

This little section of the four gospels has caused so much trouble to those who produce copies of New Testament (both in manuscript and in print), to exegetes, to theologians, and to preachers that it has had a special name for more than a millennium: the pericope de adultera. One thing upon which all modern scholars are agreed is that it is not part of the original gospel of John. However, if it is not part of John’s original text, it has all the signs of a genuine piece of oral tradition that circulated within the memory of the communities, especially in some churches in the West, and which subsequently embedded itself in the canonical text either at this point in John or after Lk 21:38. However, while normally such matters of textual criticism are irrelevant, here they add more complexity. Usually, omissions in manuscripts or silence among commentators indicates simply non- knowledge of the piece of text (e.g. no Greek Father or theologian before the twelfth century comments on the text, while the few Latins who do so usually provide a ‘health warning’ before doing so), but here we know that there were deliberate omissions of the text and positive refusals to preach on it before women lest they take it as indicative of the non-seriousness of adultery, (note that until the sixth century adultery, along with murder and apostasy, were seen as the greatest sins), or that men might think it subversive of good order in society. So what have we got? We have a genuine piece of early Christian tradition that was not included by any of the four canonical evangelists, but which survived and which became frozen in writing. Even though it was not too much to the liking of many, so convinced were some communities of its expression of genuine Christian tradition that they — after the appearance of the notion that genuine tradition was confined to the four canonical gospels — sought a location for the pericope either here or in Luke. The pericope’s message being at once so startling that the communities believed it represented, somehow, a core message of Jesus, yet at the same time being so shocked by it that they were embarrassed by it.

It is worth noting that there is no question in the pericope that the woman was innocent: she is guilty of the crime as charged having being caught in flagrante. The notion that Jesus saved an innocent woman is a far more palatable message; and sometimes this notion of ‘vindicated innocence’ even creeps into scholarly exegesis. Equally, there is no notion that she has to make ‘satisfaction’ as found in many medieval and modern theologies of the sacrament of penance which employ a processual model of reconciliation (the processus iustificationis), i.e. of contrition, confession, satisfaction, and absolution. The woman is not addressed about the past in any way.

Michel de Verteuil
General Comments

There are three people in today’s passage:
•  the woman;
•  the group called “scribes and Pharisees”;
•  Jesus.
As always, in your meditation you must let yourself enter the story from the viewpoint of one of the three.
•The woman was guilty of a sexual sin, but her story evokes any experience of having done something shameful in a moment of great vulnerability.
•The scribes and Pharisees are typical of powerful people who have no feeling for the weak. There are several things about them that might touch you: that they have singled out this one sin for condemnation; that they are using the woman to score points against Jesus; or that they use pious phrases to mask their cruelty – all types of behaviour that are easily recognizable.
•This picture of Jesus is one of the most touching in the gospels; look at his action of bending down and writing on the ground. It suggests tremendous inner strength which, in a non-violent way, unmasks the hypocrisy of the accusers.
John Littleton,
Gospel Reflection

How easy it is to condemn other people. Many of US judge them automatically. Like the Pharisees and, scribes in Jesus’ time, we quickly focus on their mistakes and sins. We do not spare them embarrassment when we comment on their behaviour and rejoice at their humiliation, often having had their faults revealed publicly. Sometimes we are almost voyeuristic in our eagerness to discover how and when people have behaved indiscreetly and foolishly. It may be that they have been dishonest at work or unfaithful in their relationships.

Yet we apply different standards to ourselves. We are not so swift to criticise our own flaws and sins. In fact, we try to hide them in the hope that, if they are discovered, we will not be embarrassed and humiliated. While we are usually ready to disapprove of friends and colleagues, we have no desire to be condemned ourselves. Unfortunately, our double standards ensure that we do not treat other people as we would like them to treat us. We make excuses for our own unacceptable words and behaviour while, at the same time, demanding accountability from others for their transgressions.

Such hypocrisy contradicts the clear teaching of Jesus in the gospels. He did not condemn sinners, but he was uncompromising in his condemnation of their sins. He did not celebrate their downfall or delight in their shame. He rejoiced, instead, in their repentance because it enabled them to undergo conversion so that they could value and appreciate his forgiveness, which he shared freely with them. However, he always told them not to sin again.

Significantly, Jesus always practiced what he preached. He always loved the sinner while being repulsed by the sin and he instructed his disciples to do the same.

In the incident involving the woman caught committing adultery, Jesus exposed the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and the scribes by saying to them: ‘If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her’ (John 8:7). Whereas they had initially been like vultures surrounding their prey, they were humbled by the simple words spoken by Jesus who highlighted the truth about them. The personal details of their sins might have differed from the woman’s sins but, in reality, they were no different. They too were sinners in need of repentance. Importantly, Jesus offered great encouragement to the woman who, in more than one sense, was in a dangerous situation.

During Lent, we are invited to examine ourselves instead of focusing on other people. Before we begin to perceive their faults and sins, we are challenged to notice our own sins. Then, in a spirit of repentance, we can make the necessary amendments for them and seek God’s forgiveness and the forgiveness of those we have hurt and offended. We will be so overjoyed at receiving God’s forgiveness that we will no longer have the time or the desire to gloat over their sins. Instead we will have the option of encouraging them to repent so that they too may experience God’s forgiveness and, as a result, sin no more.

Homily notes

1. The gospel does not invite a narrative, a story, or a single ‘message’; rather it demands we reflect on some very common attitudes. The homily could point out some or all of the following ‘points’. However, beware of ‘watering down’ this text as has happened so frequently: it is deeply disturbing of many attitudes common among Christians and non­Christians alike.

2. This is a text that many over the entire history of Christianity have wanted to disappear – quite literally – in that they chose not to copy it in their copies of the gospels. Moreover, when it was included in the gospel text – it is now part of the standard Greek text and has been present in the Latin text since the beginning – it was the incident that preachers and writers commented upon least frequently, at least in the period be­fore AD 1000, and it has only become popular with preachers in the last century or so. The reasons for these objections and hesitancies are usually quite openly stated in the traditions:
first, it is socially disruptive as a husband must have leverage over his wife’s sexuality – and even if there is no stoning, then there must be some threat and warning;
second, what husband could find Christianity an acceptable religion when this gives a wife such licence – there must be a price for adultery or it brings the ‘gospel’ into disrepute;
and thirdly this seems to present Jesus as ‘soft on sin’ or on the need for penitence – this hesitation has been to the fore in recent centuries.

3. This text therefore raises the whole issue of what is Christianity about: is it a social control system or the Way to the Father who is forgiveness?

4. This text presents a male-centred universe: it is a wife who is accused, it is men who pass judgement, and it is men to see their rights/ property misused. The copyists, writers, and preachers who ignored the text or were hesitant about it, all viewed the text from the standpoint of men and the control of society. It reminds us that Christianity emerged in a male centred world and has in many ways colluded in that world. Just recall that no man could be stoned for adultery. This is a worldview we see challenged by Jesus – in him there is no male or female (cf Gal 4:4) – yet as our history of hesitance over this text shows, this is a part of Jesus’ proclamation that most preachers (men) have been most unwilling to take on board.

5. We have to acknowledge that men and women are not treated equally in the tradition of Christianity.

6. One writer, St Ambrose (c. 339-397), did tackle the text but his concern was with the question of the death penalty: if only one without sin can throw the first stone, then can we inflict the death penalty? He recognised, even then, that the call for the death penalty arose from desires for revenge rather than for rehabilitation. This is still a major issue today where many Christians still support the notion of an eye for an eye and do not see that the Christian vision of morality is based on love, forgiveness, and helping people to start anew rather than on retribution and retaliation. So the text challenges us to see if we really believe in the call to repentance and renewal of Jesus, or whether that is something we only want for ourselves and those with us.

7. There is no mention in the gospel of the notion of penitential reparation – she is not told to do penance but to sin no more. This silence has troubled many Catholic theologians down the centuries, especially since the Council of Trent. Do we reduce the new life that God offers us into a system of ‘paying back’ and clearing bills: this reduces reconciliation to a set of laundry lists and bills, and makes the divine mercy into a banking system of tabs and repayments.

8. The story exposes a basic message of the Christ: the divine mercy is greater than law.

9. Note the absolute death of the past of the woman before Jesus: ‘Go and sin no more.’ Much to the annoyance of many Christian writers there is not even a ‘stern moral word’ for the woman. Needless to say writers do not suggest that Jesus was wrong on this count; they rather suggest that in the copies to which they have access there might be something omitted! The story presents us with a past that is wholly over, and the only thing now is to start afresh. This absolute death of the past is good news.

10. In a world where people are unable to let the past be past but want to continually re-open old wounds and seek retribution and retaliation, then any new vision / life is strangled at birth.
This raises many ‘points to ponder’:
• are desires for vengeance present in our lives?
• how present is a desire to moralise?
• do we see religion as a ‘control system’?
• do we see God as mercy or the final reckoner dealing out
• do we project a God-image of a ‘dealer of retribution’?
• how willing are we to let others let go of their past?
“Come now, let us reason together,” says the LORD. “Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool. – Isaiah 1:18

A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out. In faithfulness he will bring forth justice; (Is 42:3)

Scripture reflection

“Those who live in constant terror of their own sins are powerless to accomplish anything in the world.” Berdyaev
Lord, there was a time when the feeling of guilt had us paralyzed.
We felt condemned by voices within us:
•  sermons we had heard in our childhood threatening us with hell fire;
•  teachers who told us we had to be perfect.
We felt as if we were standing in full view of our accusers
and they were condemning us as deserving of death.
We thank you, Lord, that you sent us, at that moment,
a wise and kind person, who stayed with us, saying nothing,
just being there like Jesus bent down and writing on the ground,
until, very gradually, as the weeks went by,
the harsh accusing voices were silenced, one by one,
beginning from the most deeply rooted,
and eventually we were standing there knowing you were looking at us,
and telling us that we were now free to go out and lead a good and creative life.

“All condemnation is of the devil. We condemn others
only because we shun condemning ourselves.”
St Seraphim of Sarov
Lord, we who are community leaders in the Church or the country
often have to point out people’s faults.
Help us to do so without condemning them.
But that is not easy; we have to listen to our innermost selves,
waiting patiently until every scribe and Pharisee within us has walked away
because only then do we have the right to look at another and say, “Go, and sin no more.”

Lord, just as in the time of Jesus, society pronounces its harshest judgments
on those who are caught committing sexual sins, especially if they are women.
Authorities will always single them out and make them stand in full view of everybody,
insisting that in the name of religion they must condemn such persons to death by stoning.
We pray, Lord, that your Church will be like Jesus,
pointing out the hypocrisy of the accusers,
and protecting the dignity of those who have sinned.

“One form of gentleness we should practice is towards ourselves.
It is reasonable to be displeased and sorry when we commit faults,
but not fretful or spiteful to ourselves.”
St Francis de Sales
Lord, teach us to look at ourselves with respect and compassion,
as Jesus looked at the woman taken in adultery
when he was left alone with her and she remained standing before him.

Lord, send us leaders like Jesus,
who will stand with the weak and the vulnerable against their oppressors,
not aggressively, but calmly, so that the oppressors walk away of their own accord,
and the weak find the space to create a good life for themselves.

Lord, we remember a time when we were using a Bible passage to condemn someone,
and quite suddenly the passage came alive for us,
and we saw that we were condemning the other for what we were guilty of ourselves,
so that we let the stone fall from our hands and went our way.
Pharisaic Judgment

What should we make of the Pharisees in today’s gospel story? They brought the woman taken in adultery into the Temple precincts, thronged with all kinds of people, and made her stand before everyone in as public a manner as possible. They insisted that her penalty should follow the full rigour of the Mosaic Law, namely death by stoning. But their motive was not so much zeal for the Law, as to use the woman merely as a pawn to discredit Jesus. If his response to their query, “What have you to say?” was, “Leave the woman along; let her go free,” they would accuse him of breaking the Law and condoning adultery. If, however, he were to say, “Let her be stoned to death,” then he would be seen as lacking in mercy, and also as going against the legal restrictions of the Roman authorities, who reserved  the right to impose the death penalty. Jesus saw through their plotting and made them withdraw in confusion.

The intriguing question is what did Jesus write with his finger on the ground. The Gospel account gives us a possible clue. It does not use the normal Greek word for “write” (graphein), but rather one (katagraphein) which means to draw up a condemnation. Possibly Christ may have listed on the ground the sins of each of the woman’s accusers, and so his challenge that the one without sin should cast the first stone met with no response. Although Jesus did not condemn the woman, neither did he condone what she had done. “Don’t sin any more,” was his invitation and warning to her.)

In the case of the Pharisees, as we see, and indeed in the case of most of us, there is the subtle danger of creating God in our own image and likeness, imagining him to be a stern and demanding God, who takes revenge, who loves to punish, who can be persuaded to forgive only after we have made a great show of repentance. Such of course is a mere caricature of God. At best this kind of religion can be cold and loveless. At worst, as St Paul says in the Second Reading, trying to form a right relationship with God by mere adherence to the Law and all its ways can be as worthless as the rubbish one throws away. It is only when we allow the love of God, as seen in Christ, to encompass our lives, to change our inner being, that we begin to understand Christianity.

Contrary to the thinking of the Pharisees, we must fight the tendency to regard ourselves as better than others, no matter what commandments we keep; nor must we judge and condemn others. Rather should we be generous, forgiving and loving towards others. From the gospel story we see that the worst of the seven deadly sins is not lust as so many think. Indeed, Christ’s harshest condemnation was reserved for those who, like the Pharisees, in their pride and self-righteousness shut themselves off from God, who felt no need to ask God for help and grace. We cannot be true followers of Christ unless we acknowledge our frailty, our sinfulness, our need for his help which alone can save us. When we do fall we gain a deeper understanding of the extraordinary mercy God is prepared to extend to the sinner. For our sins make no difference to God’s enduring love for us.

St Paul says that all things work together for the good of those who love God (Rom 8:28).  St Augustine adds, “Yes, even sin!” for from bitter personal experience, he more than most knew all about the false allure of sin, how difficult it is often to break away from it, and how God’s love alone can help us conquer it.
1. Once upon a time a high school principal discovered that someone had stolen the exam questions from her office. It had to have been the sophomores because they were the only ones whose grades shot up. She assembled all the sophomores in the gym and tore into them. I don’t know who’s more stupid she said, the one’s who stole the tests and then gave them to everyone else or the ones who use the stolen tests to improve their grades. 
 Either way we were bound to catch you. So you’re not only sneaky and dishonest and corrupt. You’re also dumb. We’re suspending the lot of you indefinitely until we find out who stole the tests. Tell your parents not to bother to come over here and try to change my mind. I won’t talk to them. I won’t even waste my time telling them that their children are crooked and dumb. If the people who did it confess, we might not expel them, but they don’t have much time to fess up. Then she stormed out of the gym.
The sophomores slipped out in twos and threes. I agree with what she said, they admitted, but I didn’t like the way she said it.
2. An elderly woman was telling the pastor on his farewell from the parish: “I am sorry, father, you are leaving. I never really knew what sin was until you came here.”
3. Pastor and Farmer:

“Do you smoke, drink or curse?” The pastor asked the old farmer. It was a hesitant, “well, every once in a while..” “You know, John, I don’t smoke, drink, or cuss…” “Yessuh, pastor, but you don’t farm either..!”

Stories from Fr. Tony Kadavil’s collection 

4. Queen Elizabeth honored John Profumo.

A number of years ago, at her annual birthday honors party, Queen Elizabeth honored John Profumo. Do you remember him? John Profumo was a high ranking cabinet official in the British government, and was the major figure in a scandal that rocked the British Empire. A book, and later a movie, dramatized the incident. The press reported that Profumo was involved in an affair with a call girl in London who, in turn, was involved with Russian spies. This was at the height of the Cold War. When this matter was brought to light, Profumo made the matter worse by lying to the House of Commons. Later, he had a change of heart, went to the Prime Minister, confessed, and resigned from the Cabinet in shame. He dropped from public notice and quietly went to work in the slums of London, attempting to be of help to the lonely and the lost. For him, I suppose, it was a kind of personal penance. Years passed. Then, when he was sixty years old, at the honors party, Elizabeth, the Queen of England, named John Profumo, the sinner, among the distinguished citizens of her realm! Isn’t that great? He was restored. Restored! Now note, the Queen did not say that what he had done was okay. What she said is that what he had done was forgiven! That is our stance as Christians. We are to have the highest possible standards, asking, “What looks and sounds like Jesus?” But, we don’t use our standards as a club with which to punish people. Rather, they are meant as a call to fullness of life in Christ. And when a brother or a sister stumbles, we don’t accuse and condemn. We forgive and extend a helping hand. As followers of Jesus, we are to be people of conviction, but we are also to be people with compassion. God, our Father, give us the spirit of our Lord Jesus. Help us to condemn the sin while loving the sinner. Help us to love because we have been loved. Enable us to forgive because we have been forgiven. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.
5. Second chance:

Dr. A.J. Cronin was a great Christian physician in England. One night he assigned a young nurse to a little boy who had been brought to the hospital suffering from diphtheria, and given only a slight chance to live. A tube was inserted into the boy's throat to help him breathe. It was the nurse's job periodically to clean out the tube. As the nurse sat beside the boy's bed, she accidentally dozed off. She awakened to find that the tube had become blocked. Instead of following instructions, she was immobilized by panic. Hysterically she called the doctor from his home. By the time he got to the boy, he was dead. Dr. Cronin was angry beyond expression. That night Dr. Cronin went to his office and wrote his recommendation to the board demanding the immediate expulsion of the nurse. He called her in and read it, his voice trembling with anger. She stood there in pitiful silence, a tall, thin, gawky Welsh girl. She nearly fainted with shame and remorse. "Well," asked Dr. Cronin in a harsh voice, "have you nothing to say for yourself?" There was more silence. Then she uttered this pitiful plea, "...please give me another chance." Dr. Cronin sent her away. But he could not sleep that night. He kept hearing some words from the dark distance: "Forgive us our trespasses." The next morning Dr. Cronin went to his desk and tore up the report. In the years that followed he watched as this slim, nervous girl became the head of a large hospital and one of the more honored nurses in England. Thank God for a second chance, and a third chance, and fourth chance! Do you need to encounter God's forgiveness? He died on a cross to make it available.

6. Ann Landers:

Sometime ago a lady wrote to the famous advice columnist Ann Landers and asked this question, "Do all men cheat on their wives? I have been suspicious of my husband for some time. I even hired a private detective to trail him, but he couldn't come up with a thing. I went to a lawyer. He told me to grow up and accept the fact that all husbands fool around. Do they?" Ann Landers very wisely replied, "No. There are plenty of married men who never cheat, and your husband could be one of them. The only thing you can be fairly sure of is that your lawyer cheats on his wife." Cheating on one's wife or husband is called adultery in the Bible. It is prohibited by the Sixth Commandment.

7. Mary’s stone:  

Here is an old but funny story. The Pharisees bring a woman caught in adultery before Jesus for judgment and Jesus said "Let anyone who is without sin cast the first stone at her." There was a sudden silence. But then all at once a small stone came flying from the back of the crowd aimed at the head of the woman, and Jesus promptly caught it. Looking at the lady standing in the crowd Jesus said, "Mother! Really! I was trying to make a point, here.” The assumption is that Jesus' mother, Mary, was immaculately conceived and hence sinless and so she was eligible to throw a stone. But if Jesus himself did not condemn the woman, why should his mother do so?