The story of the woman taken in adultery raises several questions, not the least of which is, how does a person commit adultery alone? The fact that only the woman was apprehended is an example of the gender bias of Jesus’ adversaries. The compassion of Jesus toward this endangered woman is an example of his disregard for such biases.
It is probably not by accident that the story is about a woman, and there is more here than gender bias. All the Gospels depict Jesus as especially sensitive to the needs of poor and disadvantaged people, those who have been pushed to the margins of the community. Such treatment was particularly true of women in patriarchal societies. Therefore, the person who stood in shame in the midst of these men was not only guilty of violating marital trust; she was also a marginalized woman. She was doubly vulnerable. This fact serves to heighten Jesus’ compassion.
It is clear that the scribes and Pharisees were less interested in upholding the law of Moses than they were in trapping Jesus. They used the woman to accomplish this. If Jesus agreed to her being stoned to death, he would appear to be as bloodthirsty as were these “righteous” men. If he protested her execution, he would be opposing Mosaic law. They had him over a barrel. Or so they thought.
We do not know for sure what Jesus wrote on the ground, but that little detail certainly adds a bit of suspense to the story. It was his spoken words that caught everyone unaware, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Now he had them over the barrel. According to Jewish custom, the eldest should have begun the stoning. Here the elders were the first to depart. All his accusers gave up their challenge of Jesus; in effect, the case against the woman was dismissed.
They had shamed the woman, using her to trap Jesus. Instead, without minimizing her sinfulness, Jesus showed her the respect she deserved as a human being, treating her with compassion. He did not disregard the law, for he exhorted her: “Sin no more.” Clearly, he valued repentance and conversion more than just reprisal.
This woman represents all the people we may have relegated to the margins of society, not merely because we do not approve of their lifestyles, but because for some reason or other we consider them socially unacceptable. They may not measure up to our standards because of racial or ethnic origin, class or economic status, religious or political affiliation. We may disdain them because they are too liberal, or too conservative or too idiosyncratic. Jesus’ love was offered to all, regardless of their social status. So must our love extend to all.
This episode is an example of what Isaiah describes in the first reading: “I am doing something new.” And what is the something new that God is doing? We are granted a way out of the deserts of our lives; we are sustained by living waters; we are rescued from the jaws of ravenous beasts. We are forgiven, and we are saved from our own sinfulness. This is what the first reading promises; this is what the Gospel reading reports.
All through Lent we have reflected on the marvelous goodness of God in our lives. The theme of God’s steadfast love culminates on this Sunday before Holy Week. Both the psalm verses and the reading from Paul direct us to respond to such divine graciousness with joy and gratitude. We have been brought back from captivity, and we are filled with joy; God has done great things for us, and we are filled with joy.
Paul, himself a forgiven sinner, has been completely transformed by his faith in Christ Jesus. His life is an example of the Gospel exhortation, “Sin no more.” He left his former life behind as he launched out into the something new that God had in store for him, and he did it with no regret.
On this Fifth Sunday of Lent, we stand on the brink of Holy Week, the time set apart for us to reflect seriously on the ultimate example of God’s compassionate love for us. The readings remind us that we cannot stand self-righteously and condemn the lives of others, when God is calling them tenderly to conversion. We cannot cling to the past, which may be so comfortable and even socially acceptable, when God is doing something new.
We live in a world that desperately needs something new. This wondrous newness of God will be born out of conversion, not coercion; it will spring from repentance, not reprisal. It will take shape in the councils of the world, in the boardrooms of the workplace, at the tables of families. We are all called to “sin no more.”