By Mgr William Shomali
The Gospel of today is a genuine pearl, no less than the parable of the Prodigal Son was. But while the last one was an edifying story, the narrative of the adulterous woman was something real, lived by real people in flesh and blood.
Last Sunday we contemplated the embrace of the Father, who forgave and rehabilitated with his love the son who had gone away from home, wasting not only the heritage of his father, but also the best years of his life. The Gospel of this, the fifth Sunday of Lent, makes us meet a poor woman who needed not only forgiveness but also to have her destroyed life rebuilt.
The adulteress was certainly not alone when she was discovered. There was also the man whom she committed the sin with. But he was not brought in front of Jesus. In this patriarchal society, ruled by men, women were not regarded as equals and often contemptuously held to a different standard to men. This shows the hypocrisy of the ancient Middle East, where only the offence of the woman was considered punishable.
By accusing the poor woman they were also targeting Jesus himself. The Pharisees had laid a trap for him. They asked him for advice on how to deal with this woman caught in the act of adultery. Should they apply the law or be merciful? Any decision he made would be used against him. If he rehabilitated her, he would have violated the law; if he condemned her, he would have failed in mercy.
Jesus bent down to write on the ground with his finger, in order to avoid looking at the poor woman. He was writing in silence, not listening and not talking.
What was Jesus writing? The letters were indecipherable. We can only try to guess. Maybe he only pretended to write in order to show that he was not impressed by their hypocrisy. Maybe he wrote the words he would say later: “Let whoever among you without sin cast the first stone at her.” But, oh, the Infinite wisdom of Christ! He was careful not to abolish the law of Moses, but rather laid down the foundations for them to definitively move beyond it.
Jesus was merciful not only to the woman but also to her accusers. He could have publicly pointed out the sins of each one of them, as “the Lord searches the heart, and tries the minds”. But he preferred to be discreet and fully respect their consciences in order to give them the opportunity to repent. They all were surprised by his judgment. They came as accusers and left as the accused; they came to condemn but they left confused. So that they did not go away in completely humiliation, Jesus continued to write on the ground. They left the circle one by one beginning with the eldest.
“Jesus was left alone with the woman who remained standing there” (v 9b). Jesus, the only sinless being, the mercy of God made flesh. The fragile woman stood there representing human weakness. St Augustine was impressed by that scene and saw in it the antithesis between misery and mercy, drawing upon the two Latin words miseria and misericordia. They have the same root. Misericordia (mercy) contains miseria (misery) and cor/cordis (heart). For Augustine, the mercy of God consists in putting all our misery and sinfulness into His sacred heart. His heart is bigger than all our sins and failures.
Let us come back to the woman. She felt confused and destroyed. Jesus wanted to heal her and to give her self-confidence and self-esteem. “Woman, where are they?” His words and look had a transforming power. In fact, when the Lord offers forgiveness, he infuses new life. The past is erased and the sinner is reborn. At this point, we need to meditate and taste each word of Isaiah: “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers. I put water in the desert and rivers in the wasteland for my chosen people to drink, the people whom I formed for myself, that they might announce my praise” (Is 43:1920). In the Holy Land, which frequently suffers from lack of rain and water, where the desert covers far more terrain than do the fertile plains, such a promise is greatly appreciated. Water means life and fertility not only for the plants but also for men and women. For Christians it means also the new life given by baptism.
If Jesus should address the same words of the Gospel to us, “Who among you is without sin cast the first stone”, we should all have to leave the church, one after another just as they did. But the Lord assures us that he came looking for sinners like us. His mission is not to condemn but to save. He condemns the sin but seeks the recovery of the sinner. In fact, while he rehabilitated the woman, he asked her not to repeat her sin. The sin is condemned, but still the sinner is excused and loved.
Today, the world does the opposite and wants to drag the Church and Christians into its own ways. The world continues to stone the sinner but encourage evil. A simple example can illustrate this. The world condemns rape and sexual violence but allows eroticism and pornography to be projected in the name of freedom of expression, forgetting the causeand-effect relationship between them.
That woman’s crime ended up in the public eye – the equivalent of it being printed on the front page of the newspapers today. She had the bad luck of being caught in the very act of committing adultery. The scribes and Pharisees, with stones in hand, felt secure because their sins were hidden. For them a hidden sin is not a sin. It becomes so only when they are caught. Jesus does not accept this double standard.
In the same chapter of St John’s Gospel, the Lord said: “You judge by human standards; I pass judgment on no one” (Jn 8:15).
We cannot be judges of our brothers for many reasons. First, we do not have all the information or know all circumstances which would allow us to give a fair judgment. It is up to the Lord alone to be the ultimate judge. Otherwise we will be claiming to take His place. Second, we ourselves are sinners and cannot have a double standard: indulging ourselves, and being strict with others. Third, we have the example of Jesus who refused to give a judgment against others. He knew that we can help our brothers to change more by our love than by our condemnation.
One cannot read the Gospel of this fifth Sunday of Lent without feeling strongly for the respect and the love Jesus showed towards the adulterous woman. The Pharisees expected harsh justice from him but found that the justice of God is called mercy and compassion.
Marvellous is the love of the Lord. But why are we afraid to throw ourselves into his arms? Why our fears and hesitation? Easter, which is at our door, invites us to experience the goodness of the Lord through the Sacrament of Penance. Through it, we allow Him to run towards us and to clasp us in His arms. In front of our conscience – though obscured by sin and reluctant to go to the sacrament of Confession because of shame or fear – we have the opportunity to hear Jesus comforting us: “I do not condemn you! Go away and do not sin any more.” Those words will set me free. They prepare me to celebrate a joyful Easter.
Mgr William Shomali is the chancellor of the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem