As the sequence of Sundays proclaiming repentance draws to a close, the Gospel presents one of the most graphic of all New Testament narratives on the mercy of Christ that leads to new life. The reading from Isaiah prepares the way as the Lord says to the returning exiles, See, I am doing something new, forming a new people, that they might announce my praise. Repentance is not something we do; it is allowing the forgiving power of God to touch our lives and lead us along new paths.
The reading from John is a dramatic story of two trials. Jesus is put to the test by scribes and Pharisees (the usual suspects) who haul a woman caught in adultery before him and ask him whether he will approve the death penalty prescribed in the law of Moses (Dt. 22:21; Ez. 16:38-40), so they could perhaps brand him as a lawbreaker. The other trial is of a woman accused of a capital offense. Though powerful, this narrative is not found in the earliest and best manuscripts of John and appears in other important manuscripts after Lk. 21:38. Still, early church authors, such as Papias (ca. A.D. 120) and the author of the Syriac Teaching of the Twelve Apostles (3rd cent.), knew of such an incident, and Jerome included it in his translation, so it is canonical for Catholics. It may have been omitted in some early rigoristic traditions because Jesus seems too soft on sin.
When challenged, Jesus does not respond, but simply bends down and writes in the dust, then stands up with the ringing command, Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. He then writes again on the ground, and the accusers melt away, beginning with the elders, who, like the elders in the story of Susannah (Daniel 13), probably brought the charge. Jesus’ writing has spawned volumes of commentary, ranging from suggestions that it recalls Daniel’s writing on the wall (Dan. 5:24) to a proposal that Jesus first wrote the text of Ex. 23:1 (an edict against false witnesses) and then the sins of the accusers. A suasive suggestion is that Jesus’ action attacks the accusers by alluding to Jer. 17:13, Those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water. Whatever the best proposal, attention shifts to Jesus and the woman standing alone. St. Augustine captures this scene poignantly: relicti sunt duo miseria et misericordia (There are but two left: affliction and mercy). Jesus inquires of the woman where her accusers are and asks, Has no one condemned you? Her response, the only words from her in the story, is, No one, Lord. Jesus then says, Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on sin no more. Jesus’ merciful compassion for the woman liberates her to turn her life toward a God of love.
This incident has inspired a wide variety of Christian art. The most striking is Jesus and the Fallen Woman, by Lucas Cranach, the Younger (c. 1570), now exibited, as is Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son, in The Hermitage at St. Petersburg. At the front center of the painting are Jesus and the woman. Cranach captures that moment when Jesus turns toward the accusers and challenges those without sin to cast a stone. His expression is stern but troubled, and his right hand reaches out toward the woman. Most remarkable, the woman is not bowed to the ground in front of Jesus as in much art work, but is standing at his left. She is very young, with eyes closed, looking forlorn and resigned to her fate. Her head is inclined toward Jesus’ shoulder, and her hand rests on his arm. Most striking, as one follows the lines of the painting, is that her right hand is entwined with the left hand of Jesus in a gesture of exquisite tenderness. The hands of mercy are joined to the hands of a suffering person facing execution.
When we gaze at the faces of Jesus and the woman, we might ask what face the church presents to the world today. Much preaching, especially in areas of sexual morality, is strident and condemnatory, with women often bearing the brunt of blame. Such preaching is a verbal equivalent of stone-throwing, yet Jesus holds the hand of a sinner. He does not claim that the woman did not sin; he simply does not condemn her for it and saves her from self-righteous accusers. Jesus and the young woman in Cranach’s painting can be our guides through Lent and Paschaltide. With heads inclined toward Christ and hands intertwined with his, we can go forward as forgiven sinners yet called to be companions of Jesus.