We saw this in the wondrous story of the Prodigal Son proclaimed last week. That story was meant to show us that our God wants to be regarded as a gentle, loving Father who’s always on the lookout for his wayward children. A Father who treats us as “nobility” ready to place a ring on our finger, shoes on our muddy worn-out feet, a fine robe about us and who then throws a party in our honor.
That story, too, was aimed to confront the Pharisees. They were compared to the elder son who muttered and sputtered about all the attention that the younger brother was getting.
In today’s story, the scribes and Pharisees led a woman caught in adultery in front of Jesus. Their intention was to set a trap for him so they could have some charge to accuse him.
It was a terrible crime for a Jew to commit adultery. It was punishable by death by stoning. They planned a trap for him. The Mosaic law said she was to be stoned, but Roman Law forbade Jews to put anyone to death. There was no middle ground. No matter what he chose, Jesus would be breaking a law.
Let’s look at their concept of authority for a moment. The scribes and Pharisees, according to Scripture scholar William Barclay, were the legal experts of the day. To them authority was intended to censure and condemn. That authority should be based on sympathy, that it should be to reclaim the criminal and the sinner never entered their heads~ similar to much of our American justice and prison system today. They thought they had the right to stand over others and watch for every mistake and every deviation from the law with savage and unforgiving punishment.
Moreover, they were not looking at this woman as a person; they were looking at her as a thing, whereby they could formulate a charge against Jesus. This incident, Barclay suggests, shows vividly and cruelly the attitude of the scribes and Pharisees toward people. They were using her only as a man might use a tool, for their own purposes.
Picture the scene: the crowd wondering how—or if—Jesus was going to escape from this dilemma; the woman, fearful of her fate; the Pharisees, tasting victory. Jesus knew exactly what they were doing, and without a single word, exposed their hypocrisy, leaving them dumbfounded.
How? By writing something on the ground with his finger. What did he write? We don’t know. Check out these suggestions and then decide for yourself.
Maybe Jesus was just “doodling,” as we might do sitting at a boring meeting. It could have been his way of showing disdain for the entire procedure, of curbing his anger.
Maybe, as Barclay suggests, Jesus seized by an intolerable sense of shame, he couldn’t meet the eyes of the crowd or of the accusers or perhaps of the woman . . . and in his embarrassment he stooped down so as to hide his face, and began writing on the ground with his finger.
Maybe, without naming names, he wrote a list of sins, sins that many in the group would have to claim but were unknown to anyone else there.
Or consider this. No one commits adultery alone, anymore than a prostitute acts alone. Could Jesus have indicated, in some roundabout way, who were the partner – or partners – of this woman? Why should the woman be accused and convicted when her willing partners walk away with their reputations in tact? In Leviticus 20 we read: “. . . the man who commits adultery .. . will be put to death, he and the woman.”
Barclay tells us that the normal Greek word for to write is graphein; but here the word is used is katagraphein, which can mean to write down a record against someone.
Jesus knew exactly the right balance between justice and mercy, something most of us have a hard time achieving. After he had finished writing whatever it was he wrote, he stood up, looked directly at the crowd, and extended the invitation: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Not a single stone was thrown; nor would there have been if all of us had been in that crowd. Can anyone of us claim to be without sin? Did Jesus condone adultery? No, he did not. But he read the hearts of every person there, and the message he delivered applied to each and every one.
He told them – and is telling us – that we are not to judge. Both Luke and Matthew proclaim: “Judge not and you shall not be judged”(Mt.7:1).
He told her that he did not condemn her; that she should “Go and from now on sin no more.”Thus, he was not condoning adultery; he was giving her a second chance. She would have to take the opportunity to make her life brand new.
God through this story and that of the Prodigal Son make it very clear that God is doing something brand new.
No one else can read hearts. We see deeds and misdeeds. God sees the whole self.
That is why he said to the woman and now to us: “Neither do I condemn you. Go now and avoid this sin.” Alone with Jesus she had everything she needed. Are we content to having “only Jesus?”
We may not think about it often, but every day we may ask that we may come to treat others as Jesus did in this gospel. How often have we prayed: “Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us?”
Do we think about what we are saying? It could be a little scary, if we did.
I’d like to be like this Jesus we see in the gospel today. I’d like to have that large of a heart. And I’ve prayed for compassion all the years of my ministry because there have been times my arrogance has taken hold. I was told that at times I was arrogant and not compassionate towards my brother priests. And so I thank God for the moments in which God has given me the gift to be compassionate.
These days I am very much aware of Jesus’ mercy for me. In my almost 76 years, I have had my share of serious sins. And I am glad God is a merciful God. And I pray that I’ve put down the stones I sometimes have clutched in my fist.
You see, a really terrible sin is to throw stones at people whose sins we ourselves could have committed.
Gossiping is a grave sin. It is a sin because it can seriously harm the reputations of the persons we are talking about. Gossip can ruin lives.
Instead, let us be known for being merciful. And compassionate. And forgiving, when we pray: “Our Father.”
See, God makes all things new.
Mercy is a brand new thing that is part and parcel with the New Testament. Mercy is what Jesus is all about. And, therefore, mercy is what we should be all about.
And Pope Francis talks about the mercy of God all the time and in 2016 declared a Holy Year of Mercy.
Close your eyes for a moment.
Think about one sin you are glad for which God has forgiven you.
Now, when you next celebrate the holy Eucharist, you really have something for which you can praise and thank your God.
Jesus, my Lord, my God, my All,
I praise and thank you this day for all of your love and mercy and forgiveness
that you have shown me all of my life.
Many times you’ve done brand new things in my life,
and as my 76th birthday is coming up and the 50th anniversary of my priestly ordination,
perhaps you will once again fold the newness that is your love,
and send forth your Spirit into me and lift me up to continue to serve you as best I can.
To You be praise and honor and glory, forever. Amen.
And now, before you go, here’s the beautiful hymn appropriate for our theme, “What wondrous love is this?” Click here.