Sunday reflection: John 8:1–11

posted at 12:01 pm on March 13, 2016 by Ed Morrissey

“Sunday Reflection” is a regular feature, looking at the specific readings used in today’s Mass in Catholic parishes around the world. The reflection represents only my own point of view, intended to help prepare myself for the Lord’s day and perhaps spark a meaningful discussion. Previous Sunday Reflections from the main page can be found here.  For previous Green Room entries, click here.

This morning’s Gospel reading is John 8:1–11:

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.

But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.

So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

Recognizing an addiction, it is said, is the first necessary step toward curing it. Many rehabilitation programs are based on this premise. Alcoholics Anonymous published its famous 12 Steps almost 80 years ago, and the first step requires those seeking freedom from addiction to admit that the object of the addiction has left them powerless — alcohol, in the AA program, but the same is true of drugs, gambling, sex, and other forms of addiction. The second of the 12 Steps confirms that the addict “believe[s] that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

Why did Jesus come to us at all? The Word of the Lord had been given to us by the prophets, and the promised land of Israel set up to be a nation of priests to the whole world. Yet humanity, through our predilection toward sin, could not complete that mission on our own. The Israelites rejected the prophets, set up corrupt kings who allowed idol worship in the Promised Land, and traded their mission for worldly and material power rather than trust in the Lord. They went into exile and repented, and returned — but only to go through the same process again and again.

We could not complete the mission on our own. The long history of the Israelites serves as an object lesson to this basic truth, and to another: we are, as part of our nature, addicted to sin. It’s not just an addiction to material pleasures, although that is certainly part of it, but also to the sin of arrogance — that we do not need the Lord, or worse yet, that the Lord serves us rather than the other way around. That arrogance leads us to overlook the beam in our own eye, as Jesus says in another part of the Gospel, in order to shriek at the mote in our neighbor’s eye.

We are addicted to our own sense of ersatz godliness — and it blinds us, just like a beam across our eyes.

With that in mind, consider the irony in this passage. A group of sinners comes to Jesus demanding judgment on another sinner as a means to test whether Jesus will endorse their own ersatz godliness. One could imagine Jesus rolling His eyes at this scene in frustration. The Pharisees are demanding that the law serve them and their power, and that Jesus publicly confirm their status. Instead, Jesus flips the script (as we’d say today) and challenges all of them to publicly confirm the impossible — that they have been without sin themselves. He shames them into what amounts to a tacit public confession.

But consider what happens next. “They went away, one by one,” John writes, “beginning with the elders.” They had an opportunity to take that first step toward curing addiction — admitting to it — and in fact had all but done so already. Rather than taking that full first step and opening their hearts to Jesus with the second step, they left. However, the woman did stay and in doing so confessed her status as a sinner. She took the first step toward the cure for her addiction, forgiven by the Lord with the word to “sin no more.”

The adulterous woman began to walk the path of salvation, while the “righteous” remained blind to their own predicament.

Paul writes to the Philippians about the nature of walking this path. The disciple of Christ is hardly a perfect being, not even an Apostle. “It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity,” Paul confesses in our second reading today, “but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it.” Paul urges his readers to stay on the path, “forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead” — to recognize our sinfulness, seek forgiveness for it, and work to overcome it. “[T]hrough faith in Christ,” Paul seeks “the righteousness of God,” not self-righteousness. And he will only find it through faith in Christ.

Let’s return to the question of why Christ came among us. We had the law and the prophets, but the world could not cure its addiction to sinfulness on our own. Like many of the blessings and bounties of the Lord, humanity used the law and the prophets for their own ends rather than fulfill the mission of God. We saw sinfulness in others, especially outsiders, but not within ourselves. The only salvation we had was for all of us to catch a glimpse of redeemed humanity — the fully human and fully divine Jesus, the Word of God — living among us and conquering death. In Him, we can have the beams removed from our eyes to recognize our addiction and put our trust in the power of salvation, but only if we admit we have that addiction in the first place.

Come, take that first step, Jesus beckons. Salvation lies ahead, but only if we recognize that we need it.

The front-page image is “Christ and the Adulterous Woman” by Pieter van Lint, 17th century.

Update: Ah, the joys of relying on spell-check. In a couple of places, I wrote “addition” rather than “addiction.” Thanks to Gary Gross for the correction.

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