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.”

Besides the Lord, who knows our sins best? We do — even if we live mainly in denial of them. One philosopher, whose name I unfortunately cannot recall now, postulated that Hell might be seeing our true natures unmasked, our internal lives exposed for all to see. Our sinfulness shames us into pretending we’re better than we are.

When we find sin in others, however, that same vanity drives us to harsh judgments of others, sometimes for the same sin. For example, my wife and I have just started watching Ken Burns’ documentary on Prohibition. Many of the crusaders against alcohol were sincere and genuine, but some politicians played both sides of the street. Even the sincere campaigners tended to overlook their own human frailty and blame it instead on outside forces, especially demon drink. We look outward for excuses and seek perfection through human intervention; usually it makes things worse.

Thus we come to this famous episode from Jesus’ ministry in which a group of men want to impose capital punishment on a woman guilty of a shameful sin. Her guilt is assumed in the Gospel; there is no suggestion that the woman is innocent of the charge. And yet this episode shows us the power of that shame and self-knowledge of sin, which Jesus exposed without lifting a finger … almost literally.

Jesus’ actions are curious in that sense. He does almost nothing during this confrontation with the Pharisees, who are clearly hoping to get a rise out of Him. Contrast this with the marketplace in the temple, which Jesus cleared of moneychangers with a whip. During this entire confrontation, Jesus didn’t bother to get to his feet. He never condemns the woman’s sin, nor does He challenge their interpretation of the law. Jesus takes one of the most passive approaches to dealing with a challenge from the temple authorities that we see in the Gospels, at least outside of the Passion itself.

All Jesus does to rebuke the men gathered with the stones is to write in the sand and speak one sentence, in which he makes no specific accusation or condemnation of their actions. How does He get them to retreat? Jesus reminds them of their own sins, which breaks the spell of hypocritical judgment. We all have this in common: all sin and fall short of the glory of God.

Some speculate about what Jesus wrote in the dust. Was it a list of adulterers in the crowd? After all, the woman didn’t commit adultery alone; where were her partners in that sin? Could He have been writing a broader list of sins where the Pharisees and other men could see it? Perhaps, but if we search our own hearts, we know it wouldn’t be necessary. We already know our sins. We don’t need a list of them to remind us how we have fallen short and offended the Lord. That would have been true of the men in the crowd, who might have worried that Jesus might have the ability to expose them if they tried to cast that first stone.

That would have been Hell indeed. I certainly wouldn’t want my sins broadcast to the world in the public square, and I doubt I know many who do.

With that in mind, consider also who left and who stayed. All of those who wanted to stone the woman had an opportunity to discuss sin with Jesus, and perhaps even hear that they can still be redeemed from it. When confronted with their sins, the crowd slunk back into the darkness. However, the woman — who had every reason to run — stuck around. She knew her sin too, but did not hide it and awaited some kind of judgment for it. As Jesus was a well-known teacher, she still could have expected Him to deal harshly with her.

Instead, He forgives her sin and tells her to “sin no more.” This is a model for the sacrament of reconciliation, where we are forced to stand up and recognize our sins in order to receive sacramental absolution. This is what the woman receives from Jesus; she acknowledged her sins, and in doing so, allowed Jesus to offer her the Lord’s forgiveness and opportunity for repentance.

It’s more than just a model of confession, though; it is salvation in miniature. The wages of sin are eternal damnation, but not just for the worst of sinners. That’s true of all sinners. We are all the woman in the circle, waiting to be stoned until Jesus comes to offer us the opportunity for redemption through Him. This is the difference between human justice and the justice that come from the love of God.

And since God made us in His image, we innately know this to be true. This is why Jesus acts so passively to this challenge to His authority and influence from the Pharisees. He knows that we feel our own sins, even if we hide them from others. Jesus knows that we all want redemption from those sins, even if we can’t easily speak of them and fear the judgment that is coming. In this episode, Jesus allowed those holding the stones to teach themselves about the common touch of sin among us, and how we all need redemption from the Lord.

With that knowledge, what can we do but come to Christ for forgiveness?

The front page image is a detail from “Christ and the Adulteress” by Tintoretto, c. 1546-8. On display at the Galleria Nazionale d’Arte Antica in Italy. Via Wikimedia Commons.

“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.