The story of the woman caught in the act of adultery has many facets. Let’s look at a few of them to see what this story might be saying to us today.
The setting. Jesus is teaching a crowd in the Temple area when the scribes and Pharisees, part of the religious leadership, bring a woman before him whom they say was caught in the act of adultery. Notice, they bring the woman to him publicly—not privately. Clearly they want an audience. They also want to entrap him.
The woman. We don’t know who this woman was. But she was not merely suspected of adultery. She was caught in the act. Were the witnesses “planted” in the room where the act occurred? If so, what does that say about them? And where’s the man, her “partner in crime”? The fact that he is not dragged along with her could mean: a) this whole thing was a set up, b) there’s a double standard here, c) he was a faster runner. Imagine the woman’s shame in front of all those people. And her terror. Her life was hanging by a thread.
The dilemma: The punishment for adultery was death by stoning (Lev. 20:10). If Jesus says she should be stoned, he would be contradicting his message of mercy and forgiveness. But if he absolves her, he would be transgressing the precept of the law.
Jesus’ actions. What does Jesus do? First, he remains silent for a little while. Pope John Paul II said, “By his silence Jesus invites everyone to self-reflection.” That includes us! Then he stoops down and begins to write on the ground. We are not told what he wrote. There’s much speculation. Some say he merely doodled. Others that he wrote the word “hypocrite.” Still others say he was writing the Ten Commandments. Then he stands up and says those incredible words: “Let the one who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Another call for self-reflection! Jesus then bends down and writes again. Some speculate he was writing down the sins of the men who had dragged the woman to him.
Whatever Jesus wrote, he silenced the woman’s accusers. Slowly they begin to go away “one by one, beginning with the elders.” The scribes and Pharisees wanted Jesus to focus on the woman, the sinner. Jesus instead focuses on them, for they are also sinners! The accusers wanted Jesus to focus on adultery. Instead he highlights other more insidious and deadly sins: judgmentalism, self-righteousness, prejudice, deviousness, pride, gossip, conniving, callousness. The accusers have equated the woman with her sin. But Jesus distinguishes between the sinner and the sin. He knows everyone is more than the wrong they do. (Would we want to be remembered only for the worst thing we ever did?!)
After all the scribes and Pharisees leave, Jesus stands up again and restores the woman’s dignity by looking her in the eyes and addressing her: “Woman, where are they?” (I see humor in that question!) Then, “Has no one condemned you?” She says, “No one, sir.” By addressing him as sir, she reveals her respect for him. After all, he just saved her life! Then Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on don’t sin anymore.” Jesus sets her free. And he challenges her. He gives her a future. As Oscar Wilde remarked, “Every saint has a past, and every sinner has a future.”
+ Many of us (myself included) are prone to judge others. We see in the news or hear rumors of the awful things people do, and it’s easy to judge “them” rather than examining our own hearts. Sometimes we even delight in seeing people fail/fall/get caught (like Tiger Woods perhaps or some young starlet?) What does that say about us? We must remember: we tend to judge others by appearances, and appearances can be deceiving.
+ When I taught high school for all those years, sometimes students would do “bad” things. The temptation for me was to accuse them in anger, “You did a terrible thing!” But I soon learned, it was more effective, more honest, and more non-judgmental, to simply ask them, “What happened?” In other words, tell me your story because I have only partial data—what I saw you do or what others say you did. I have to hear your story.
+ This story from the gospel is absent from the oldest Greek manuscripts. St. Augustine (who knew a lot about sin and forgiveness!) conjectured that some copyists omitted it because they felt it made Jesus look too lenient! Do we ever think Jesus is too lenient with sinners? If so, what does that say about us?
I’d like to conclude with a song entitled “How Can It Be?” by Lauren Daigle, a 23-year-old with a voice described as “smoky and sweet.” I can imagine the woman caught in adultery singing this song, overwhelmed by Jesus’ goodness and mercy. May the words of this song become our own as we recall Jesus’ great love and mercy toward us too!
What speaks to you today from this gospel story?
Do any of the words of this song or do any of these paintings touch your heart today?