Gospel reading: John 8:1-11
Michel de Verteuil
There are three people in today’s passage:
• the woman;
• the group called “scribes and Pharisees”;
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.
“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.
**********************************************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.
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.
Homily notes1. 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 malecentred 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?
**********************************************3. Sean Goan
This Sunday we break with the gospel of Luke and take a story from the gospel of John. It has been selected because it deals with the theme of forgiveness. As with last Sunday’s gospel, so too here we see two different attitudes to the mercy of God. This time, however, it is not in a parable but in a real incident in which those with a narrow view of the mercy of God wish to use the misery of this woman as an opportunity for point scoring against Jesus. For the Pharisees, the scriptures are being read with a view to making them powerful as judges and experts in the Law. For Jesus, the scriptures are to be read as a way to understand the overwhelming mercy of God. In highlighting their hypocrisy, Jesus calls them to repentance. In highlighting God’s love for her, he calls the woman to a new life.
‘No need to recall the past’ is the jubilant cry from the prophet in the first reading as he tells the people to look around them and discover that God is as concerned with saving them as he was with saving their ancestors in Egypt. Paul too, from his prison cell, is able to speak words that resound with hope and this is because through Jesus he has become aware of the presence of God with him in all the circumstances of his life. He can also say, ‘I forget the past because he knows that each new day offers an opportunity to come to know the love of God, a love which always triumphs over suffering and death. The woman is the gospel also discovers that she can leave the past behind because the encounter with Christ has brought her to a new day. As we draw close to Holy Week, we are invited to recognise that in the saving mystery of Easter God is always doing a new thing.
**********************************************4. Donal Neary S.J.
More than forgivenessThis is a powerful story of justice and mercy. Jesus is on the side of the woman who has been accused of sin and crime. It was an unjust accusation, and the people who brought her had little good in mind.
Jesus offers more than forgiveness – he brings mercy. Mercy forgives with compassion and doesn’t need lectures. It restores dignity to the victims of injustice like the lady in this story. It is the same in Jesus, for those who do not receive their dignity because of something they are, or something they did and are unjustly treated.
Jesus did not condemn; he turns the tables a bit. He simply says: Anyone here without sin – take the stone and throw it. Nobody does. In this atmosphere of darkness we need to hear something of the love and the mercy of God. Would light of mercy come into their darkness of condemnation? Would they leave their darkness into a personal space where they might have a change of heart?
This is also about the challenge to live honestly and without sin; and to be able to takes steps like this woman’s life, to move on. All hear this word from Jesus – I do not condemn you. This comes to our society and to ourselves. We need to hear this word for ourselves as often we throw stones at ourselves more than at others. What we condemn in others is what sometimes we do not like in ourselves.
Lord may we enter this world of mercy wherever we need to.
May we hear these words always, ‘I do not condemn you’
From the Connections:
The Gospel reading for the Fifth Sunday of Lent in Year C of the common lectionary is the Fourth Gospel’s account of Mary anointing Jesus feet with perfume. This incident takes place six days after Jesus’ raising of Mary’s brother Lazarus from the dead, just before Jesus’ Palm Sunday entry into Jerusalem. As the evangelist notes in the verses immediately preceding today’s Gospel, Lazarus’ coming back from the dead has all of Jerusalem buzzing – and not all of it is good.
Jesus comes to Bethany, to the home of his good friends, Lazarus, Mary and the ever-busy-with-hospitality Martha. Mary welcomes Jesus by anointing his feet – not washing them with water, the usual courtesy – but with nard, a very expensive fragrance imported from Northern India. This precious spice must have cost Mary everything she had. Her extravagant act rocked her sister’s dinner party – but how can you adequately thank someone who gave you back your brother?
Judas, the keeper of the company’s purse, objects at this wasteful extravagance (the Fourth Gospel’s description of Judas here is the most devastating picture we have of Judas in the Gospels: he is described as a thief, a manipulator, a betrayer). While Judas’ protests sound reasonable, he’s not fooling anyone. Jesus deflects Judas’ objections. Mary’s act of kindness is exalted by Jesus as a prelude to the wonders that are to come.
HOMILY POINTS:Mary’s act in today’s Gospel is not a matter of extravagance and waste but one of gratitude and love. Her gift comes not from the extra she could spare but from her own need, her own poverty. She expresses with a liter of ointment a love she feels in the depths of her soul, a love that is beyond any words she knows to adequately express it.
In today’s Gospel, while Judas and the other guests deride Mary for her ostentatious display, Jesus graciously accepts her act of loving hospitality. In doing so, Jesus transforms her humiliation into joy, her ridiculous display into a prayerful offering. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus lifts up and calls forth the good from everyone he meets — from the most despised tax collector to a little boy’s offering of his lunch. As Jesus transforms the lives of these “real” people, so we are called to do the same: to accept one another, to love one another as God has accepted us and lifted us up and loved us.
Broken as an act of welcome to her beloved friend, later to be broken as an act of courageous compassion to anoint the body of the crucified Jesus — Mary’s small jar of spices is an example to all of us of the “fragrance” of joy and peace, of comfort and care with which we can fill our own houses when we “break” our own “vessels” for the sake of those we love.
Doodles before stonesWriter Anne Lamott’s life is a story of resurrection — from a train wreck of booze and drugs and destructive relationships to creating, as a single mom, a loving home for her son Sam and establishing her own solid, grounded relationship with God. With humor and insight, she has written about her finding God in the joys and messes of the everyday. In her book Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, Lamott reflects on today’s Gospel:
“In John 8, when the woman is about to be stoned by the Pharisees for adultery, we see Jesus doodling in the sand. The Pharisees, the officially good people, are acting well within the law when they condemn the woman to death. A huge crowd of people willing to kill her joins them. The Greatest Hits moment here comes when Jesus challenges the crowd: ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.’ But the more interesting stuff happens before, when he leaves the gathering storm, goes off by himself, and starts doodling.
“Jesus refused to interact with the people on their level of hatred and madness. He draws in the sand for a time. The Gospel doesn’t say [what’s he’s drawing]. But when he finally faces the mob and responds, all the people who were going to kill the woman have disappeared.
“You have to wonder: Where was the man with whom she committed adultery? Some people suggest he was in the crowd, waiting to join in with the others and kill her. We don’t know. But I can guess how the condemned woman must have felt — surprised. She was supposed to die, and her life was spared. Hope always catches us by surprise.”
Christ calls us to embrace a new perspective of humankind: that we are brothers and sisters to one another; that we are called not to be judges or self-appointed executors of God’s wrath on others (God reserves that to himself) but to be agents of God’s forgiveness and reconciliation; that we should find no satisfaction in the fall of sinners but should only be satisfied when we have done all we can to lift them up and restore them to hope. “Hate the sin but love the sinner” is easier said than done. We’re capable of justifying the destruction and exile of anyone who does not meet our standards of conduct. But to be faithful disciples of the Easter Christ is to drop our stones of condemnation and self-righteousness and help restore and heal the lost, the troubled, the disappointed with whom we share the compassion of God.
From Fr. Tony Kadavil:
1: Queen Elizabeth II of England 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 he was also 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 II, 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.
2: 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.
3: Ann Landers:
Some time 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.
4. 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?*****
From Fr. Jude Botelho:
Today’s first reading from Isaiah shows us that a right relationship with God is not only important, but possible no matter how difficult the situation. Isaiah was promising liberation and redemption to those who were in captivity, when people had almost lost hope. When everything seemed more hopeless than before, Isaiah was speaking of a new exodus from Babylon, when God would once again work wonders for his people. We might give up on God but God does not give up on us. Isaiah was reminding his people that God isn’t a God of fear and punishment, but a loving and caring God. That God can do anything, even snuff our powerful Babylon that was keeping His people in exile. We have to remind ourselves that God not only did great things in the past but is ready to do wonderful things from us right now. He is a God of newness always acting and making something new.
In the second reading Paul affirms that the most important part of faith is knowing the Lord Jesus Christ and by ‘knowing’ Paul is not talking about intellectual knowledge but a deep personal knowledge of Jesus Christ. Paul is writing this letter almost twenty years after his conversion. When he was a Pharisee the search of his whole life had been for a right relationship with God, he had striven to observe perfectly all the demands of the Law. After his conversion he realize that all his efforts, all his achievements, his trials, his being thrown in jail, everything was useless, was dung. "I consider them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ." Blamelessness comes only from a person’s willingness to accept Christ. What Paul is asking of believers is not to be burdened by the past, we don’t have to look back in guilt, nor have we to be over preoccupied by our own efforts at attaining our salvation but rather to let God work in us and through us as he wishes. We cannot merit salvation but only humbly accept it as a total gift of God. In today’s gospel John paints a picture one the one hand of Jesus the merciful Lord who does not judge us even in our sinfulness but gives us another chance, and on the other hand a portrayal of human beings out to judge, to condemn, to destroy life in the name of religion and God. Jesus goes to the temple to pray and to proclaim the goodness of God, the Pharisees come to the temple to play a game of ‘whose right and whose wrong’, using a fallen woman to bait Jesus to fall into their trap. Unmindful of the embarrassment they are causing this woman, the Pharisees set the trap for Jesus. "Teacher this woman was caught in the very act of adultery and according to the law, Moses commanded us to stone such a woman. Now what do you say?" If Jesus says ‘No’ then he is going against the Mosaic Law and not showing respect for their religious traditions, for which he should be condemned. If on the other hand he says ‘Go ahead’ then how can he speak of mercy and pardon and besides he would be going against the Romans, who did not allow the Jews to impose the death penalty on anyone as only the Romans had that right. With either option Jesus would stand condemned. What was he to do? Jesus was silent. He did not do what they expected him to do. He did not pass judgement one way or another. Instead he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. Human beings are quick to judge and we find ourselves judging and labeling people all the time. We judge by externals and we impute motives for what we can see without bothering to understand, without ever asking whether we are qualified to judge. "Judge not and you shall not be judged."
"First get rid of the log in your own eye before you remove the speck from your brother…"
A woman brought her daughter to Mahatma Gandhi one time asking him to place his hand on her head, to recite a prayer over her, and to free her from an addiction she had. Gandhi asked what the addiction was, and her mother said that her daughter was addicted to sweet things, like sugar, sweets, sweet cakes etc. Gandhi thought for a while and he then asked the mother to take her daughter home and return one month later. This seemed strange, but the mother did what she was asked. One month later she arrived with her daughter. Gandhi placed his hand on the young girl’s head and prayed over her, and then he told the mother to take her daughter home, because from now on, everything would be ok. The mother more puzzled than annoyed, asked Gandhi why he was able to do something this day and not on the previous occasion. Gandhi smiled, as he told the mother that, up to one month ago, he too, was very fond of sweet things! - Jack McArdle in ‘And that’s the Gospel Truth’
What about Jesus’ action of writing on the ground? No one knows what he wrote. Was he doodling on the ground? Some one has suggested that perhaps he was listing the sins of the Pharisees. Well aware that they were guilty one by one they slinked away beginning with the eldest till Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. St. Augustine described it poetically, ‘two are left: misery and mercy." And the woman hears the good news from Jesus. "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and sin no more." Some people would have difficulty accepting how easily Jesus forgives. "Does God really forgive as easily as that?" Graham Greene has called it "the awful strangeness of God’s mercy." It is important to understand the heart of the message. The lesson of the story is not that sin is of no importance, or that God does not punish sin, but that God extends mercy to the repentant sinner in order that they might turn from their sins. Unlike the Pharisees who wanted to condemn, Jesus wanted to forgive. He believed in the goodness of people whereby the one who has sinned can change. Jesus was giving her another chance. Her life was not all over, she could begin again and so can we. He is making us anew!
“Never look back”
A lesson I learnt early in life was ‘never look back!’ As a four-year old, I ran a fifty-meter race at a Christmas party for kids organized by a company. Halfway through, I was first in the pack whereupon I looked back to see where the others were. In a wink, the others overtook me and I finished last. I wept bitterly. “Son” said dad comfortingly: “Never look back.” “No need to recall the past,” says God in the first reading from Isaiah, “no need to think about what was done before.” The deeds “done before” refer to the first Exodus from Egyptian slavery to freedom. The “new deed” is the return from the Babylonian exile. In Christian imagery the “new deed” refers to Jesus’ death and resurrection.
Francis Gonsalves in ‘Sunday Seeds for Daily Deeds’
In today’s Gospel we have the moving account of the encounter between Jesus and the woman caught in adultery. The scribes and the Pharisees brought this woman caught in adultery to Jesus not because they are concerned about morality, but because they want to trap Jesus. If he goes against the death penalty then he would seem to be condoning adultery. If he decided for the death penalty, he would lose the sympathy of the masses who knew him to be kind to sinners. What is the response of Jesus? He wants to avoid anything that would cause her further shame so Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. One of Jesus’ basic principles is that no human being is to judge another. The quality needed for definitive judgment is not knowledge, but goodness, which only God has in sufficient degrees to make judgments. So Jesus, when prodded on by the Pharisees, charges the one who is without sin to cast the first stone. How often we have a double standard for judgment. We have one set for ourselves and quite another for others. We are able to see very clearly the weaknesses and failings of others while we condone the same in ourselves. The Gospel tells us that the Pharisees got the point, and one by one they left the scene beginning with the eldest. The point of the gospel story however is not the Pharisees and their behaviour, it is not about judging others; the heart of the story is what happens between Jesus and the woman when all her accusers have vanished. Jesus is left alone with this woman. He turns to her and asks her, “Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way and sin no more.” The lesson of the story is not that sin is of no importance, or that God does not punish sin, but that God extends mercy to repentant sinners in order that they might turn from their sins. With this woman as with us, Jesus is not interested in what she was but in what she could become. Unlike the Pharisees who wanted to condemn, He wanted to forgive. He wanted to challenge her to leave her sin and rebuild her life. He was giving her another chance. He is giving us, even at this eleventh hour, another chance. God is not a God of condemnation but of mercy and forgiveness.
The Scarlet Letter
In 1850 Nathaniel Hawthorne published ‘The Scarlet Letter.’ Its setting was a Puritan community in Boston in early New England. Hawthorne’s novel tells the story of Hester Prynne who was forced to wear the scarlet letter “A” for “adultery” because she had given birth to an illegitimate child. The child’s father was none other than the community’s minister, Arthur Dimmersdale. Hester had to bear public scorn and humiliation, while the minister had merely to bear the pangs of conscience. After many years the minister finally confessed his secret sin to the people and later died in peace. Hester meanwhile went on to live like a saint bringing happiness to her disturbed illegitimate daughter and helping others in their troubles. ‘The Scarlet Letter’ has some similarities with today’s Gospel story of the woman caught in adultery.
He doesn’t deserve mercy!
The story is told of a young French soldier who deserted Napoleon’s army, but who within a matter of hours was caught by his own troops. To discourage soldiers from abandoning their posts the penalty for desertion was death. The young soldier’s mother heard what had happened and went to plead with Napoleon to spare the life of her son. Napoleon heard her plea but pointed out that because of the serious nature of the crime her son had committed he clearly did not deserve mercy. “I know he doesn’t deserve mercy” the mother answered. “It wouldn’t be mercy if he deserved it.” That’s the point about mercy: nobody deserves it. It is given freely!
Fr. Titus Brandsma was a University President in Holland during World War II. He was arrested by the Nazis and taken to a concentration camp at Dachau. There he was isolated in an old dog kennel. His guards amused themselves by ordering him to bark like a dog when they passed. Eventually he died from torture. What the Nazis didn’t know was that the priest kept a diary of his ordeal, writing between the lines of print in an old prayer book. He wrote that he was able to endure his suffering because he knew Jesus has suffered before him. In a poem addressed to Jesus, he wrote: “No grief shall fall my way, but I shall see your grief-filled eyes; The lonely way that you once walked has made me sorrow-wise…“Your love has turned to brightest light this night-like way (of mine)… “Stay with me, Jesus, only stay; I shall not fear if, reaching out my hand, I feel you (are) near.”
Kilian Healy in ‘Walking with God’
Hollywood heroes often capture our imagination because they symbolize something that we admire. For example, when we watch Charles Bronson in Death Wish, Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry or Sylvester Stallone in Rambo, it is not their violent actions that attract us, but their cool courage in confronting danger. We’re inspired whenever we see these film heroes walk fearlessly into what they know are high-risk situations, because they have resolved to do what they have to do, to right some wrong. Spontaneously we almost want to stand up and cheer for them as they defy death and demonstrate daring, because we wish that we too could face our own challenges with the same kind of courage.
Albert Cylwicki in ‘His Word Resounds’
It is some years ago now when I actually witnessed the following scene. I saw a mother with a son about six years of age, and a daughter of about four. The young girl was crying because of her brother who was after her hitting her on the head with his school bag. The mother lifted the young lad off the ground, gave him a sharp smack across the face, with the words: “I’ll teach you not to hit anyone smaller than yourself.” –We are all familiar with the concern of parents and teachers about young people in their care taking drugs. Many of the same adults spend quite a lot of time and money buying and using alcohol, cigarettes, stimulants, and other addictive products. If they themselves fail to see the contradiction inherent in their behaviour, they should not expect the younger generation to be as blind as they are.
Jack McArdle in ‘And that’s the Gospel truth’
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: