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.”
More than forty years ago, the film Excalibur revived the Arthurian legend cycle for a new, more modern generation. Long before Game of Thrones and The Last Kingdom expanded the ancient heroic cycle, Excalibur reverted King Arthur and his legends to an Ur-text for that genre, a position that it had occupied for centuries. Only Beowulf had a longer pedigree in English literature, although most of us knew about Beowulf than actually read it.
One scene in particular from Excalibur comes to mind in today’s Gospel reading. “What is the secret of the Grail?” intones a booming voice as Percival approaches it. “Whom does it serve?” It’s the latter question that this Gospel reading and our first reading from Isaiah forces us to confront.
In this famous scene from John, Jesus stands in defense of an adulterer. Her guilt does not appear in question; John certainly doesn’t appear to question it, and the woman does not protest her innocence at any time. She has been caught in flagrante delicto, according to witnesses. The penalty for this has been clear since Moses handed down the Law in Leviticus (20:10-21) — death.
So why does Jesus defend her? Well, He actually doesn’t. Jesus doesn’t argue for her innocence, challenge the witnesses, or even dispute the penalty. All Jesus does is write in the dirt with His finger, and then challenge the men on whether they are sinless enough themselves to condemn someone, and then to continue writing in the sand. That is enough to discourage the crowd, and Jesus then forgives the woman and advises her to sin no more.
What happened? Jesus knew the Law better than anyone in the crowd, of course. He also knew whom the Law was supposed to serve. It serves God, but it also serves us, and is meant for our benefit rather than an instrument for our destruction. The secret of the Law is its path to formation so that we may abandon sin and find the Lord, and in that way the Law serves us. In that way it is a vessel for the Lord’s mercy as well as His justice. Without that quality, we end up serving the Law rather than the other way around, and the Law becomes tyrannical and an instrument for abuse.
John’s narrative clearly relates a historical event, but has deeper resonances as well. For one thing, this is a model of the sacrament of reconciliation. As is commented more than once in the Gospels. the Pharisees and scribes found the idea of Jesus’ forgiveness of sins heretical. That could only be accomplished by the high priest, according to their temple practices, and only once per year on behalf of all. As in other instances, Jesus makes it clear here that He has the power to forgive sins personally and individually, without temple sacrifice — an authority He would later pass to the apostles and the priesthood as our High Priest for eternity.
More importantly, this is a portrait of the spiritual battle we all face in this fallen world. We all know the Law well enough to keep from violating it, and yet we choose to do so anyway. We are all the adulteress in this scene, and the crowd of accusers represents the demons of temptation that are seeking the ruin of our souls. They are also experts in the Law for their own purposes, using it to force us into destruction and to lose any faith in salvation from it. We are inclined to believe that verdict, having understood our own rebellions against God regardless of our rationalizations. Like the adulteress, we come to our own stoning without much resistance.
However, this is a lie, and Jesus’ calm patience is the truth in this spiritual battle. We are not doomed to destruction for our sins; we can choose salvation through Christ, because the Law is meant for our good and not our destruction. He is the Word, and He has already provided the sacrifice necessary to ransom us from the crowd of accusers and prosecutors that ring around us when we sin. Jesus confronts the demons who seek to render judgment on us by reminding them that only the Lord has that authority, despite their lies and their manipulation of the Law to induce us into their snares. In His light, they must flee — and leave us to be judged by Jesus, who loves us.
This is one reason why Paul teaches in his letter to the Philippians that he has no “righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ.” The Law serves us to form us for our salvation; obeying the Law, therefore, doesn’t itself make us righteous. It just makes us good students, which isn’t nothing but it’s not sufficient. We must love and trust the Lord and rely on Him for our salvation from those who seek to stone us for our sins.
This Gospel passage fits perfectly into our Lenten observations, as does the parable of the prodigal son from last week (when I was on vacation). These lessons remind us of the necessity of atonement in recognition of our sins, but that we need not despair. The love of the Father through Christ will guide us, stumbling and falling as we do, to His glory — if we just believe in His goodness and love.
The front page image is a detail from “Christ and the Adulteress” by Lucas Cranach the Younger, 1545. Currently archived at the Staatsgalerie Aschaffenburg, Germany (not on display). 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.
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