“Neither do I condemn you,” Jesus says. “Go, and from now on sin no more.” The mercy of God speaks loudly in this passage even though Jesus does not say much until the end of the encounter.
The passage begins with the scribes and Pharisees bringing a woman who had been caught in adultery to Jesus. Notice there is no doubt about the woman’s guilt. As the scribes and the Pharisees speak, they speak of condemnation. “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such a woman.” St. John tells us this was a test for Jesus. The law was clear on the point and the Pharisees wanted to trap Jesus.
In response, Jesus quietly bends down to the ground and starts writing something in the dirt. Scholars have debated as to what Jesus was writing but there is no conclusive answer. Regardless, when the Pharisees persist in their questioning, Jesus looks up and says: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” He bends down again and continues writing.
The Pharisees must have been stunned because they respond in silence. Jesus turns their argument on its head. They can not throw a stone for each one knows that they have sinned. They are confronted with the reality that they too are in need of mercy. So in silence they depart, one by one.
Looking up Jesus realizes the woman is still there. Standing in His presence she is full of shame and embarrassment brought on by her humiliation and her sin. “Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir” “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.” With these words Jesus forgives the woman caught in adultery. She is now free from her sin and experiences the mercy of God. Freed from this heavy burden she can now go forth to live again.
In the encounter Jesus cuts through the judgment and deception of the Pharisees; he cuts through the darkness of the woman’s sin and guilt; he brings life where death was certain. Jesus’ saving action can be described with the images Isaiah uses for the power of God against the forces of oppression: (The Lord) “opens a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters, who leads out chariots and horsemen, a powerful army, till they lay prostrate together, never to rise, snuffed out and quenched like a wick.”
The words certainly harken back to the Exodus but they also look forward to something new as the Lord proclaims through Isaiah “…see, I am doing something new!”
Isaiah continues with the image of rivers springing from the desert or wasteland. What was once dead is going to live. Read in the context of our Lenten journey we are reminded of the mercy of the Lord poured forth in the waters of baptism where we are freed from sin and death.
St. Paul in his Letter to the Philippians gives a personal witness to his experience of this mercy. He says: “I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord.” Paul, once a persecutor of Christ in Christians, has had a deep realization of the power of the Lord’s mercy and his life is transformed by it.
He continues in the passage with the acknowledgement that he has not “attained perfect maturity” but continues on this journey “straining forward to what lies ahead,” as he says: “I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.”
As we continue our Lenten journey we are reminded of the great mercy which we too have received through Christ’s passion, death and resurrection. Like Paul we recognize that we are on a journey, a process of maturation in the faith. A process that will continue our entire life as we come to know and experience the depth of that saving love the Lord has for us.
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.