Conversion is the true goal of biblical law.

This Sunday’s Gospel passage is about conversion. This is important to note at the outset, because this narrative can easily admit other interpretations. Contrary to the interpretations of many, for example, Jesus does not reject the law of Moses in the narrative or issue an implicit condemnation of all of Judaism. What he rejects is the use of biblical law as an excuse for mob action. All are sinners, and many feel guilt for their actions, but some try to expunge their guilt by mob punishment of a defenseless scapegoat. Although these “blood purges” are documented throughout human culture, they violate the spirit of the law of Moses, which valued repentance over punishment. Using the law as an excuse for some kind of frenzied vicarious retribution was in fact a violation of God’s intent.

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‘Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.’ (Jn 8:11)

Liturgical day
Fifth Sunday of Lent (C)
Readings
Is 43:16-21, Ps 126, Phil 3:8-14, Jn 8:1-11
Prayer

Do you treat God’s law as a tool for conversion or for
retribution?

How has Jesus challenged you to recognize the deeper meaning of God’s commands?

Have you ever felt Jesus place his trust in you? How has that transformed your behavior?

It is also important not to sentimentalize Jesus’ actions. It is beyond question that he values the woman’s life. In fact, he holds her single life to be more important than centuries of zealous application of the law. But he never questions the charges brought against her, and he does nothing to ascertain the validity of the accusers’ facts. He does not try to understand things from her perspective or find mitigating factors. Once he saves her life, he sends her off with clear instructions: “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” He does not condemn her, but he does not call her previous actions good, either. He saves her life not because he accepts her behavior, but because he wants to give her the chance to change.

Jesus’ faith in the crowd usually goes unremarked upon, but he places considerable trust in their goodness. A single person with poor hearing or distracted attention would have undermined his lesson completely. If one self-righteous zealot had dismissed Jesus as a softhearted fool and taken matters into his own hands, the blood frenzy would have proceeded without further interruption. Jesus trusts the crowd to recognize the deeper intent of the law and to exercise self-restraint. That they do this implies that they, like Jesus, recognize conversion, not punishment, to be the true goal of biblical law.

The woman’s conversion is less easy to recognize. She does not dispute the charges against her or try to exculpate herself, and she never questions her need for the forgiveness Jesus offers. Her silence suggests that she accepted Jesus’ command to change her life. If John gives dramatic illustration to the crowd’s conversion with their quiet dispersal, he leaves the woman’s entirely to the reader’s imagination.

The crowd and the woman each had to acknowledge how far their actions had drifted from God’s intent. As our own Lenten journey enters its final weeks, it is perhaps time for us to consider the same for our lives. It is easy to ignore God’s commands or to use them to mark boundaries or punish enemies. It is considerably harder to use them for the conversion of sinners. As Christ’s disciples, we must continue the example he sets in this Gospel passage. By eschewing retribution we can give even hardened hearts the chance they need to return and sin no more.

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Tim Donovan
2 months 3 weeks ago

As a pro-life advocate, I oppose both the violence of legal abortion, as well as capital punishment. I agree that Jesus wasn't condoning the immoral behavior of the woman caught in adultery (of course, neither was He condoning the sinful act of the man who also committed adultery) but was giving the woman "the chance to change." For years, I've been a pen pal with a man serving life in prison for a serious crime . From our years of correspondence, I'm convinced that my friend, who is a devout Jehovah's Witness, has reformed his life. I agree that Christ prefers mercy over harsh punishment, while upholding the commandments.

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