The Woman Caught in Adultery
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?
What a great song for Lent! I am trying to focus on grace during my meditation time so “grace now” touched me in the song. Jesus so freely forgives me so I need to freely forgive too. Now.
Dear Kathleen, What a beautiful phrase to have running through your head during Lent: Grace now….Thank you for your sharing! Melannie
Forgive & we are free…thank you Jesus!!!!
Dear Joy…Amen! To both! Melannie
Great reflection! I’ve been thinking about this over the past week. I’ve been reading “The Imitation of Christ” by Thomas A. Kempis and there was a quote in there that gave me food for thought:
“There will always be defects in ourselves or others which we cannot correct…..Learn how to be patient in enduring the faults of others, remembering that you yourself have many which others have to put up with”.
WOW! talk about in your face!
Oh and by the way………………I was NOT one of those high school students that did “bad” things!!!!!!!!!! Maybe just mischievous!
Dear Chris, When I was in Germany years ago, we got off the train in Kempen, Thomas’ hometown. I saw his statue in their town square. The town is very proud of him. Anyway, thanks for the quote of his you shared with us…Patience evidently has always been a virtue! (And of course, I KNOW you never did “bad” things when I had you in high school…mischievous maybe, but never bad)….Melannie
Thanks Melannie, am not sure where I read this or heard this “the most beautiful words or phases is ” I’m sorry, I forgive you, I love you.
take care love Marilyn
Dear Marilyn, Thank you for your fine addition to the reflection! Melannie
You’re very welcome!
Miserere, Miserere, we aré sinners!
Dear Alfred, Amen! Amen! Thank you for writing! Sr. Melannie
Thank you, Sr. Melannie for another beautiful, inspiring reflection! I need to be reminded often of our Lord’s forgiveness & grace to each of us. The music videos you’ve been including are awesome! God Bless!
Dear Pat, And thank you for letting me know you found this reflection “beautiful.” And I’m glad you like the music videos. I know I find them inspiring. God bless you too, Pat! Sr. Melannie
Me again! Not that you didn’t do a great job with this reflection, I’m just surprised at the frequency with I’ve been reading similar thoughts.
I just read a great quote from Bishop Fulton J. Sheen:
“The one who sees the most faults in his neighbor is the one who has never looked inside his own soul, by finding ourselves worse than others, we discover that most of our neighbors are better than ourselves.
Dear Chris, I never tire of hearing from you…Thanks for sharing the quote from Bishop Sheen who was so popular in the 50’s on TV when I was growing up! Melannie
This is a powerful story of the adulterous woman, but it’s important to remember it has two parts: forgiveness and reformation. He told her not only that she’s forgiven but she is to go forward leading a pure life, abstain from sin. If only we heard more emphasis on that second part…I don’t think we hear it often enough nowadays. Just my 2 cents.
Dear Bozo, You make a good point. Notice, I did say “He challenged her…” But thanks for reminding us of another important aspect from this beautiful story. Sr. Melannie
Thanks so much for your words and I always love the music! I still play “Born in me” and I will probably play “how can it be”. I send some videos to me friends who can really use something to uplift their hearts. Music is so emotional and spiritual for me; please keep sending them!
Dear Diana, I’m glad the music is so spiritual for you. I will keep looking for good music to use. I’m glad you’re sharing the songs with others. Thanks for writing! Sr. Melannie
The songs & videos are outstanding additions to your wonderful blogs! I’ve been reading them for a couple of years, have a few of your books & had the pleasure of hearing you speak at St. Mary Church in Monroe, MI several years ago. Thanks for all you do, keep up your good work!
Dear Elizabeth, It’s always good to get reconnected with someone I met “on the road” years ago. Yes, my readers seem to enjoy the music, so I’ve been using songs more often now. Thanks for your positive remarks! Sr. Melannie
Inspiring message and beautiful song. At a Kairos retreat this weekend, Father told the girls at the Reconciliation service, that “Jesus was too busy loving her, to see her sins”. I think that is an encouraging and hope-filled thought.
Thanks for all, and wishing you a grace-filled lent. Love, Josita
Dear Josita, Thank you for sharing that priest’s remark at the Kairos retreat. It’s a good one for all of us to hear! Love, Melannie
Oh wow! Thank you for your amazing reflection a year ago, I just read it today while praying in reflection on the gospel. I’ve heard this song several times but never put it the context you did ! What a beautiful song and perfect for lent. Thank you for your gift of writing