Father Donald Senior, CP

April 7: Fifth Sunday of Lent

March 20, 2019

Me too

Is 43:16-21; Ps 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6; Phil 3:8-14; Jn 8:1-11

Thank God for the early Christian scribe who tucked the story of the woman caught in adultery into John’s Gospel. Virtually all Christian scholars believe that this account was not originally part of John’s Gospel because it is missing in some ancient manuscripts and is told in a Greek style that is quite different from the rest of the book. Some speculate it was part of the Gospel of Luke’ (who emphasizes Jesus’ mercy) and somehow was misplaced.

In any case, it is now part of our Sacred Scripture and is one of the most dramatic scenes in the New Testament. Most importantly, it harmonizes with the overall Gospel portrayal of Jesus. 

We all know this story. Jesus is teaching the people in the temple area when his opponents force a woman “who had been caught in the act of adultery” to stand in the middle of the group around Jesus. Their intent is obviously to test Jesus and shame the woman.

They point out that the law of Moses condemned adultery and that, under that law, this woman deserved death by stoning. But, in the face of their taunts (“they continued asking him”), Jesus bent down and began writing on the ground with his finger. What he wrote we don’t know. It could be that Jesus was simply tracing his finger on the ground to impose silence on the accusers. 

Then he stood up and said to them: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” One can feel the tension as one by one they went away, “beginning with the elders,” as the Gospel notes.

Then it is just Jesus and the woman alone. He helps her up. We can imagine she is sprawled on the ground, frightened and shamed beyond telling.

“Woman, where are they?” Jesus asks her. “Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she replies. Then comes the overwhelming words of compassion and forgiveness: “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”

“Where are they?” A key question. Yes, where are the supposed religious leaders who want to make a point at Jesus’ expense and to do so are willing to shame and even abuse the woman, a daughter of Abraham? Where is the man with whom the adultery was committed? Where is he, and why is he not being accused by them? 

It’s hard not think of this story in the context of what has been happening in our country recently. The revelation of crude and cruel exploitation of women, especially by men abusing their power, is shocking. So, too, are the series of assaults on the dignity and well-being of women in our society: trafficking, prostitution, pornography, child abuse, inequity in compensation, harassment in the workplace. The list is terribly long.

Jesus’ way of dealing with this woman is full of respect and tenderness and compassion. He does not overlook the sin involved in the betrayal of the marriage bond but stands by this woman whom others would humiliate and condemn.

An important footnote here is that some interpreters use this story to reinforce a negative view of Judaism: Jews are legalistic and callous; Christians are, like Jesus, compassionate and forgiving. That is not fair or true. 

Jesus himself was a devout Jew and, in the mystery of his human consciousness, his own sense of compassion, respect and justice was shaped by his Jewish heritage. It is not a matter of comparing Christians with Jews. It is a matter of contrasting those who treat others with compassion and respect versus those who abuse or exploit others.

This Gospel story should not lead anyone to think they or their group are more virtuous than others. Surely our own church knows that, in its long history, it has not always been innocent of prejudice against women. Rather, this powerful Gospel account asks us to examine our own conscience to ensure we honor the dignity of women as daughters of God. 

With Paul in today’s reading from Philippians, we must pray that we might “know Jesus and the power of his resurrection.”


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