Commentary on Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11
GOD HAS A VERY BAD MEMORY. That is one way we might express the theme of today’s readings. For the Scripture of today’s Mass speaks of how God is always compassionate to his people. No matter how many times the Israelites abandoned their God, no matter how many times they became “stiff-necked” and refused to do his will, he always came to call them back. In the whole of the New Testament we see God, in the person of Jesus, calling his sinful people to be converted, to put their whole trust in the message he brings and to follow his Way, as the way of truth and life.
Jesus can be called the Sacrament of God among us. A sacrament in general is a visible manifestation of the power of God working among us. So when we see the man Jesus, we are seeing God (though imperfectly, because what we actually see through Jesus’ humanity is not, cannot be the totality of a transcendent God). When we hear Jesus, we are hearing God. When Jesus acts, a human being like ourselves is acting and speaking but it is also our God acting and speaking. So, in reading today’s Gospel, when we see Jesus with the sinful woman, we are also seeing God.
Two kinds of sinners
We might say there are two kinds of sinners in today’s Gospel passage. First, there is the woman who was caught in the act of adultery, a very serious matter. As a matter of record, there is no mention of the other party, the man. It takes two people to commit adultery. One person committing adultery – unless it is purely in the mind – is like the Japanese concept of one hand clapping. Of course, in Jewish as in other societies where purity of the family line was vital, because the woman was the one who bore the child, the stigma of adultery and the birth of an illegitimate child was laid on her. Moreover, when a married woman commits adultery, it may not be certain who is the real father of the child she bears. An adulterous man, on the other hand, may produce an illegitimate child but, from this perspective, it is the problem of the woman and her family and not him or his family.
But in this story, the Scribes and Pharisees are also sinners. Not in their own eyes, of course, but in the eyes of Jesus and his Gospel they are totally lacking in the compassion that God displays and which he expects his followers to have: “Be merciful as your Father in heaven is merciful.” The Pharisees and the Scribes are proud and arrogant, they give themselves the prerogative to sit in judgment on others. They have no idea how to love, how to forgive – only how to keep the Law. They are thus far from God. They do not love the people that God loves.
But, before we ourselves sit in judgment on them, we might sincerely ask how many of us would have acted differently than they did in this particular case? How would many of us react if we discovered a spouse, a son or daughter, not to mention a stranger or public figure, in an adulterous relationship?
Representing all of us
The woman in this story is not just an isolated sinner. She represents all of us. She represents every person who has sinned. She represents you and me. And the Scribes and Pharisees, who were sinners too, also represent you and me. We sin in both ways: when we hurt others by indulging our desires at their expense and when we hurt others by setting ourselves up as superior and better than they. If we had been there that day, what would we have done? Would we have condemned the guilty woman too? Even during the past week, how many people have we condemned in our hearts or in our words? Are we regular readers of newspapers or watchers of TV programmes which delight in rubbishing people and destroying their lives? How many people have we ourselves passed judgement on? On the other hand, to how many have we extended a hand of love and compassion?
How Jesus treats people
Now let us look at Jesus in this scene. First of all, Jesus does not deny the woman’s sin. She HAS sinned and very seriously. Adultery involves an intimate sexual liaison between two people, at least one of whom is already married. It is a serious breach of trust in the marriage relationship and a serious act of injustice to the innocent partner in the marriage. The seriousness is really in this breach of trust and the injustice to one’s partner rather than the sexual activities, which, in this case, are secondary. The story does not tell us whether the woman was married or not. What is admitted by all – by Jesus, the Pharisees and the woman herself – is that she sinned.
Pawn in a game
However, there is another element in the story which is not explicitly mentioned but is strongly implied. The woman has been dragged before Jesus as a pawn in a game. The game is one of entrapment. “Moses ordered us in the Law to condemn women like this to death by stoning. What have you to say?” They hope to put the rabbi who eats and drinks with sinners on a collision course with the sacred traditions coming from Moses. They hope to condemn him from his own mouth. But, if he agrees with Moses, he belies his own teaching and behaviour with sinners; if he rejects the Law of Moses, he can be denounced as no man of God.
Jesus at first ignores their question, which reveals how far they are from understanding what he has been teaching and doing. He bends down and writes with his finger on the sandy ground. There has been much speculation about what he might have been writing but it seems to be a way of refusing to walk into their all too obvious trap. When they persist, he says: “If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”
To their credit, not one of them took up the challenge. One by one, beginning from the most senior, they slipped quietly out of his sight. This is the first teaching of today’s Gospel: only one without sin can sit in judgment on another person. To put it more colloquially: people in glass houses cannot throw stones. Yet, do we not do this all the time?
Now only Jesus and the woman are left. Her accusers are gone and the one person remaining is not going to accuse her. “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?... Neither do I condemn you. Go away and do not sin any more.” Unlike the Pharisees and Scribes, upholders of the Law, Jesus refuses to condemn her. Rather he gives her an opportunity to repent, to convert and change her ways. Jesus came not to condemn but to save, to rehabilitate, to give new and enduring life. Jesus always leaves a door open.
Our instinct is to punish and even destroy the wrongdoer. Every day we see the media condemning and even claiming to be “shocked” by the misdemeanours of the famous and the not so famous. How do we think Jesus would deal with such people?
If God acted like the Pharisees, how many times would I myself have been condemned or destroyed? But, no matter how many times I sin, no matter how seriously I sin, even if the whole of society condemns me and expresses horror and revulsion at my behaviour, God calls me to start over again, to change my ways of seeing life and other people. How often does he do this? Once or twice? No, but seventy times seven times! In other words, indefinitely.
As one popular Sunday missal comments on today’s Mass: “The utter completeness of Christ’s forgiveness is almost incredible. When he says to us Neither do I condemn you, the past is dead, snuffed out like a wick, forgotten.” That is what is meant when one says that God has such a poor memory. He only sees and knows the person actually in front of him at this moment. “No need to recall the past, no need to think about what was done before,” says Isaiah in today’s First Reading.
Seeing the real person
In today’s story, Jesus saw a lonely, frightened woman, manipulated by cruel, self-righteous men for their own sinister ends. He saw the potential for change and he accepted her totally.
This was also the experience of Paul, also once a zealous Pharisee. Paul knew that God had forgiven his sin, the sin of persecuting the disciples of Jesus (in the name of God and religion, it may be noted). He realises now that it is not a question of becoming a morally perfect person by his own efforts. For him to have a close relationship with Jesus is the most precious thing in life. All the rest is just garbage. As a Pharisee he thought he was a perfect person by keeping the Law meticulously and hating all those who did not. Now he knows he is a good person because he has become filled with the love of Jesus. Now he hates no one. He loves, he forgives and, like God, he forgets.
We will find a great deal of happiness and peace in our lives if, on the one hand, we can really grasp the attitude of God to the sinner, and if, on the other, we can make that attitude our own in our relationship with others.