On this 5th Sunday of Lent, we hear another familiar Gospel story of the adulterous woman brought before Jesus. In usual fashion, Jesus is drawing crowds to hear him teach. It is in this setting of Jesus teaching the crowds that the scribes and Pharisees drag a woman caught in adultery to challenge Jesus’ understanding of the Mosaic law.
Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?
A key to how Jesus will respond is found in the first reading from the Prophet Isaiah. After calling to mind the great things God has done is saving Israel from slavery in Egypt, the Prophet then draws attention to something greater yet:
see, I am doing something new!
In today’s Gospel, we see the unfolding of the new and eternal covenant in the person of Jesus. God is no longer willing to slaughter armies to conquer evil. Now, God will burn away the misery of human sinfulness by the power of his mercy and the fire of his love, made present through the heart of his Son, Jesus.
In response to the scribes and Pharisees, Jesus gives a simple challenge:
Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.
Jesus, more than likely, is not the only one in the crowd without sin. Mary, his mother, his first disciple, was more than likely among the crowd. Imagine Mary, conceived without sin, picking up a rock to throw at this woman. Another indicator that the old law is passing away, and God is indeed doing something new! Beginning with the elders, one by one, they all drifted away, leaving the woman alone with Jesus.
One of the many lessons of this Gospel is that sin, at first, separates us from God, and from the community of believers. However, if we allow the grace of God to move us to contrition, that same separation eventually leads to stand alone before Jesus, seeking his forgiveness and healing.
Jesus looks at the woman and says:
Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?
Clearly, we are not to judge others. We are not to cast stones. We are not to condemn. God’s mercy in the person of Jesus is the standard of the New Covenant, and is now our measure of meaningful relationships.
With these words, Jesus restores the woman’s dignity, and encourages her to live a virtuous life.
Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.
It is interesting, Jesus does not say simply to avoid ‘this sin,’ but to sin no more. Jesus does not condone sin. He clearly condemns sin, but extends compassion and mercy to the sinner. We are to do likewise.
When we experience the loving gaze and merciful compassion of Jesus, we know what St. Paul is talking about in the second reading today from St. Paul to the Philippians:
I 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,
Jesus’ mercy towards the adulterous woman reminds us that God’s grace and mercy are far greater than our sin. Thus, we have nothing to fear and everything to gain by returning to God through the person of Jesus. As St. Catherine of Siena said so beautifully:
God’s Son, whose example we must follow, never despised (nor now despises) anyone, whatever his or her position or parentage, whether just or sinner. No, he receives with love anyone who is determined to get up out of the filth of deadly sin, out of the emptiness of the world, and return to grace. (Letters, Vol II, Noffke, To Frate Giusto, prior of Monteoliveto Maggiore)
My dear friends, in these final days of Lent, may we seek out the mercy of Jesus in the sacrament of reconciliation. May we know the grace and joy of allowing Christ to take possession of us! Having been recipients of God’s mercy, may we be agents of mercy in each of our relationships in the world today.