Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.—Jn 8:1–11
But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area,
and all the people started coming to him,
and he sat down and taught them.
Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman
who had been caught in adultery
and made her stand in the middle.
They said to him,
“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?”
They said this to test him,
so that they could have some charge to bring against him.
Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.
But when they continued asking him,
he straightened up and said to them,
“Let the one among you who is without sin
be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Again he bent down and wrote on the ground.
And in response, they went away one by one,
beginning with the elders.
So he was left alone with the woman before him.
Then Jesus straightened up and said to her,
“Woman, where are they?
Has no one condemned you?”
She replied, “No one, sir.”
Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.
Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
Friends, in today’s Gospel reading, we are given the story of the woman caught in adultery. Similar to the content in my last reflection, this passage is one of the most studied Biblical accounts. (First, a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand. Second, about not casting the first stone. Two in a row ain’t bad.)
We are given some food for thought when we pray upon today’s first reading in conjunction with the Gospel reading for today—Susanna and the elders in the Book of Daniel. And this section of the Book of Daniel and today’s Gospel are very much related, but in different ways. The first reading relates to Susanna triumphing in the face of a potential miscarriage of justice. When Susanna rebuffs the two elders’ lustful advances, she is accused of wanting to be alone in the company of a man in order to bed him. Susanna is wrongfully accused, the elders bear false witness, Susanna is in danger of being put to death, Daniel speaks up for virtue, and Susanna is subsequently acquitted. The elders are subsequently put to death. Virtue and justice triumph. But there is more at work when you take the stories of Susanna and the woman caught in adultery together.
Susanna was married. The law of Moses dictated that she would be unavailable to the elders. The elders knew this, and yet their lust was so strong it clearly began to affect their moral judgment. It is said in the story of Susanna and the elders that they desired to “seduce her” and that the elders did not speak of their lust for her publicly. This indicates two things: they were aware that what they were doing was morally wrong because they felt shame, and they made a conscious decision to sin and go against the law of Moses. It’s not difficult to think that Jesus perhaps had the story of Susanna and the elders in mind when He remarked in the Gospel of Matthew, “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:28–29).
In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus comes across a woman caught in adultery. This woman, unlike Susanna, actually did commit adultery. According to the law of Moses, she is subject to death. The elders demand she be stoned to death. The woman knows this is inevitable since she was caught breaking the Mosaic law. Jesus steps in and asks if the elders themselves are free of sin; if they aren’t, they may stone her to death. One by one, the elders leave, and the woman is told by Jesus to sin no more.
The two events are related, albeit differently. Most significant is that they are relatable on a personal level and pertain to our lives of prayer in ways we perhaps may not have thought about. We have probably all had accusatory, condemnatory, judgmental, and self-righteous attitudes at some point in our lives. Do we often see ourselves as Susanna or the woman caught in adultery? Being accused by loud voices, perhaps falsely? When we do sin, are we given a chance to repent, or are we hurt by the stirred passions of others in a too-quick pursuit of justice? Do we see ourselves as the elders, motivated by malice or self-righteousness? Or do we act like Jesus, with patience and mercy? In the Gospel, Jesus shows that He forgives, regardless of what we have done. No sin is too great. According to the Mosaic law, the woman caught in adultery could have been put to death. Jesus knows this, but instead of advocating for the old Mosaic law, He forgives her.
In my younger years, when I first came back to the Church, I very much had a gung-ho mentality about the “rules.” Not that there shouldn’t be any—there are. And for good reason. We know what mortal sins are. We know what constitutes venial sin. But in my pursuit of “the rules” after I came back to the Church, I was acting more like an elder driven by self-righteousness and not like Jesus. Time after time, I felt driven to “call people out,” sometimes even publicly, rather than speak to them and to show mercy, especially if they were struggling and wanted to turn away from whatever sin they were struggling with (gossip, struggling with chastity, etc.). As a Lay Dominican, I am driven by veritas (truth). In a world that has often been labelled as “post-Christian” or “postmodern,” the urge to succumb to a rallying cry for justice when we see individuals acting in a fashion that is anything but Christian—or in a way that is not consistent with virtue ethics—is a very real urge. Fraternal correction is indeed necessary, but even St. Thomas Aquinas recommends we speak to individuals privately first, not publicly as the elders did. In our pursuit of fraternal correction, do we also try and act like Jesus? Jesus indeed reprimanded plenty of people, but He was so, so merciful.
One woman (Susanna) was falsely accused and sentenced to die, but she placed her life in God’s hands and trusted Him. Daniel spoke up for the woman, and she was released. The other woman (the woman caught in adultery) was justly accused and was sentenced to die. She did not have any hope because it was the law that she was to die for her sin. Jesus spoke up for her, and she was forgiven. Jesus Christ did not come for the righteous but for sinners. Christ’s compassion for the adulteress surpassed the old rules. Pope Francis wrote a text, The Name of God is Mercy. (This coincided with the Year of Mercy.) This is no less relevant here. Pope Francis himself remarked, “Jesus is the face of the Father’s mercy.”
Palm Sunday is soon upon us. Palm Sunday is often remarked as Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem. After this, Jesus will soon be sentenced to death, carry His Cross, go through excruciating pain that we cannot possibly imagine, and then be crucified. He will ask God to forgive those who called for his death. He will even soon forgive Peter, the man who would become pope. Even after he denied him three times. Let us not forget that when Jesus eventually rises from the grave once Lent is over, it is also a victory for mercy.