Pastor’s Column April 6-7, 2019
“Let the one among you who is without sin
be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Our Gospel for this final weekend of Lent before Palm Sunday and the beginning of Holy Week next weekend is the story of the woman caught in adultery. In the eyes of the Jewish Law, adultery was a very serious crime. In fact, adultery was considered one of the three gravest sins, along with idolatry and murder, and was punishable by stoning to death. But much more important than the necessity of observing the sixth commandment is the lesson this story teaches us about not judging others and God’s infinite love, mercy and forgiveness.
The Gospel begins with Jesus teaching the people in the temple area. Into the middle of this scene, literally and figuratively, come the scribes and the Pharisees, who bring with them a woman who had been caught committing the sin of adultery. “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.” The scribes and the Pharisees were setting a trap for Jesus. They hated the fact that Jesus was a friend of sinners and that he would dine at the home of tax collectors. They were enraged that their self-righteous and hypocritical behavior was often the target of the harshest criticism in Jesus’ parables, while sinners in those same parables were treated with respect, love, compassion, mercy and forgiveness. So the scribes and the Pharisees thought they could get back at Jesus by bringing him this woman caught in the act of adultery, and asking Jesus to comment on the Mosaic Law which commanded such a woman to be stoned to death. If Jesus said the woman should be stoned to death, he would lose his reputation for compassion and the name he had gained for being a friend of sinners. In addition, he would come into conflict with the Roman law, for the Jews had no power to carry out a death sentence on anyone. But if he said that the woman should be pardoned, Jesus could be charged with teaching the people to break the Law of Moses and that he was condoning and even encouraging them to commit a grave sin.
But Jesus would not take the bait. He bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. St. Jerome interpreted this action as Jesus writing the sins of the scribes and Pharisees who were accusing the women. St. Thomas Aquinas interpreted it as Jesus gently inscribing his law of love in our hearts as the perfection of the rigid Mosaic Law that was carved onto stone tablets. When the scribes and Pharisees continued asking him about this matter, Jesus “straightened up and said to them, ‘Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’ […] And in response they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.” And so after once again humiliating the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees, Jesus was left alone to treat the sinful woman with compassion. He said, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you? […] Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on, do not sin anymore.”
This incident tells us a great deal about Jesus and his attitude toward the sinner. First, only those who are themselves without fault have the right to express judgment on the faults of others. We should leave judging others to God. Second, this story teaches us that our attitude towards someone who has made a mistake should be pity, not condemnation. Hate the sin, but love the sinner. Third, Jesus challenges us to be better. He doesn’t say, “Don’t worry; it’s all right, go do whatever you want.” He says, “Go, and from now on, do not sin anymore.” He is saying, “You can do better, and I will be with you to help you. I want you to be fully alive and to share in my love and happiness.”