John 8:2–11 (NRSVCE)
2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
In the Gospel Reading from St. John, the scribes and Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman caught in adultery. They make her stand in the middle of the crowd, and they announce that she was caught in the very act of adultery.
The law of Moses prescribes stoning as the punishment for adultery. It becomes clear, however, that the scribes and Pharisees are using this woman just as bait to catch Jesus, and they have no hesitation about shaming her terribly in the process. If they were the paragons of virtue and law-keeping, they would have also brought the man who committed adultery with her, too. But they are cowards, they are hypocrites, they are religious bullies, and they are using shame and guilt to brutalize this woman. Let’s just say that those kind of people are still around today, and some of them are in churches.
Maybe that is one of the reasons Jesus looks down at the ground to write in the dirt. If he is looking down and she is standing up, then he isn’t looking at her. And so he is protecting her in her shame, by helping her be hidden from him, alone of all those men staring at her. Jesus has no interest in her wallowing in shame and self-condemnation and fear.
It’s what we read about in last week’s gospel, too, in the Parable of the Lost Son (I like to call it “The Parable of the Prodigal Father”—his love and forgiveness—with both sons—are amazing. We recall that wonderful scene as the Father runs out to the son—from a long way off. The son is so full of shame that he has completely lost his way, completely lost even his own identity. He and this woman in John’s gospel are the same. “I am no longer worthy to be your son; make me like a hired man.” We get to the point in our shame, in our guilt, that we think we are no longer worth saving. If this woman in John’s Gospel spoke more, that is the same kind of shame she feels. And Jesus protects her, guards her, and heals her. Just like the father in the parable, who brings a valuable tunic to cover the shameful, pig-filth wretchedness of the son—as if he is saying, “Whatever that was that you got into, that’s between me and you—I will never have you paraded around my house in your old rags. Just like that, Jesus is caring for this woman, who was wallowing in shame and guilt and accusation. In caring for her in this way, Jesus is also doing something to protect her from the injustice of her captors. Jesus clothes us too in His righteousness, not our own goodness, for we all fall in so many ways. It’s what Paul shared with the Christians in Philippi,
. . . not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ.
As the old hymn tells us, “Dressed in his righteousness alone, faultless to stand before the throne.”
The scribes and Pharisees are hypocritical, then, and Jesus catches them in it. He makes clear that they don’t care enough about the law of Moses to keep it themselves. They melt away when Jesus tells them to let the ones without sin be the first to cast stones.
By that move, Jesus diminishes the woman’s shame considerably, doesn’t he? Only when it is clear that her accusers have been caught in their hypocrisy and shamed by it, does Jesus lift up his eyes and look at her.
And so, by his justice for her and his mercy, Jesus catches her back for God. Of all those who came to Jesus because of her in this story—all those religious people—she is the only one left standing by him at the end of the story. And she is the only one who calls him ‘Kyrie’ (‘Lord’, ‘Sir’).
Look at the way our Lord’s answer upheld justice without forgoing clemency. He was not caught in the snare his enemies had laid for him; it is they themselves who were caught in it.
He did not say the woman should not be stoned, for then it would look as though he were opposing the law. But he had no intention of saying: “Let her be stoned,” because he came not to destroy those he found but to seek those who were lost.
Mark his reply. It contains justice, clemency, respect, honor, and truth in full measure. "Let the one among you who has never sinned be the first to throw a stone at her." Let the sinner be punished, yes—but not by sinners. Let the law be carried out, but not by lawbreakers.
This, unquestionably, is the voice of justice, justice that pierced those men like a javelin. Looking into themselves, they realized their guilt, and one by one they all went out.
Two remained behind: this miserable, shamed woman, and Mercy Himself. The Lord raised his eyes, and with a gentle look he asked her: "Has no one condemned you?" She replied: "No one, sir." And he said: "Neither will I condemn you."
What is this Lord? Are you giving approval to immorality? Not at all. Take note of what follows: "Go and sin no more." You see then that the Lord does indeed pass sentence, but it is sin he condemns, not people.
He does not change the standard, but He provides what the woman needed—not more guilt and shame, but forgiveness, and hope. One who approved of immorality would have said; "Neither will I condemn you. Go and live as you please; after all, who am I to judge?
He did not say that. He said: "Neither will I condemn you; you need have no fear of the past, but beware of what you do in the future. Neither will I condemn you: I have blotted out what you have done; now observe what I have commanded, in order to obtain what I have promised."
It is easy for we Christians to take a self-righteous attitude toward the world; it is much more difficult to take Jesus’ attitude: "Neither do I condemn you: go and do not sin again." All of us have contributed to the darkness of the world; none of us can cast the first stone. It is all too easy to lament the passage of bills loosening the definition of marriage in the Colorado State legislature this week, or to inveigh upon “all those illegal aliens” who need to be deported, but do we forget our own sexual sins, do we forget our families—immigrants all—who first came to this country years ago? Do we forget that Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Jesus, Mary and Joseph, were all at one time illegal aliens?
What do we do when we nab the adulterers of the world or even the adulterer in our hearts? Do we want to stone them? What penalty will we exact of the sinner around and even within us? Do we ever get so low we start to think we can lose our own identity as a child of the Father? That Lost Son, that Fallen Daughter—they were there—without God, without hope, filled with shame and guilt. I know many Catholics who are still beating themselves up from sins in the long ago, or even worse, beating up others for their more obvious sins, while living in hypocrisy and self-righteousness. Jesus says, “Let the one without sin cast the first stone.” While we rush to judgment and condemnation, Jesus does not. “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
In this light, I love this quote by Cardinal Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, a few years ago:
“In our ecclesiastical region there are priests who don’t baptize the children of single mothers because they weren’t conceived in the sanctity of marriage,” Bergoglio told his priests. “These are today’s hypocrites. Those who clericalize the Church. Those who separate the people of God from salvation. And this poor girl who, rather than returning the child to sender, had the courage to carry it into the world, must wander from parish to parish so that it’s baptized!”
Bergoglio compared this concept of Catholicism to the Pharisees of Christ’s time: people who congratulate themselves while condemning others.He continued “Jesus teaches us another way: Go out. Go out and share your testimony, go out and interact with your brothers, go out and share, go out and ask. Become the Word in body as well as spirit,” Bergoglio said.
This may be a troubling thought. The forgiveness seems too fast; our efforts at virtue seem not to count. Indeed, this is a new way, a new path through the sea of life. Isaiah foretold it: “See I am doing something new. Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?” The psalmist sang, “The Lord has done great things for us, we are filled with joy.”
That kind of insight will change our lives. It will make us people filled with grace, full of grace for others, appreciative of just how much we have been forgiven.
In the days of the American revolutionary war there lived at Ephrata, Pennsylvania, a pastor, Peter Miller, who enjoyed the friendship of General Washington. There also dwelt in that town one Michael Wittman, an evil-minded man who did all in his power to abuse and oppose that pastor. This same Michael Wittman was later involved in treason and was arrested, and sentenced to death. The old preacher started out on foot and walked the whole seventy miles to Philadelphia that he might plead for that man's life. He was admitted into Washington's presence and begged for the life of the traitor. 'No, Peter,' said Washington, 'I cannot grant you the life of your friend.' My friend,' exclaimed the preacher, `he is the bitterest enemy I have!' `What?' cried Washington, 'you have walked seventy miles to save the life of an enemy? That puts the matter in a different light. I will grant the pardon.' And he did. And Peter Miller took Michael Wittman from the very shadow of death, back to his own home in Ephrata—but he went no longer as an enemy but as a friend.
I’m not sure what church that pastor was from, but he had the heart of the Master. “Neither do I condemn you.”