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Lenten Reflection: Day 35

Gospel, John 8:1-11

“The scribes and the Pharisees”: this is often a stock phrase in the Gospels for “those Jews who disagreed with Jesus and opposed Him”—but it certainly should not be interpreted to mean all scribes and all Pharisees (we see members of both groups interacting favourably with Jesus in other places in the Gospels). The scribes were a group of people with particular training in Scripture and in the interpretation of Jewish law (perhaps something akin to canon lawyers in Catholicism); the Pharisees were members of a lay movement that sought to extend God’s reign into every aspect of a person’s day, to bring the holiness of the Temple into everyday life in a ‘holistic’ way.

The woman in the Gospel incident today, is never given a name, and her marital status is not specified; in many ways, she is treated, not like a person, but as an object, a tool to prove a point, a victim of an ideological “tug-of-war”. She certainly comes across as de-humanized and de-valued, and speaks only once, and then very briefly (“No one, sir,” v.11). Note also that there is no mention of the man with whom she is alleged to have committed adultery; some have suggested that, in a male-dominated culture, there was more tolerance for men’s sexual misdeeds than for those of women, and that a double standard sometimes was applied to such crimes.

Woman-Adultery

“Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground”: for centuries, scholars and preachers have speculated on exactly what Jesus might have been writing, and why it is apparently so significant that the author mentions Jesus doing it twice in this account. Did He (as some Church Fathers supposed) write some of the names of her accusers, together with details of some of their own sordid histories—which He, as God, evidently knew well?4 He writes something in the sand. Something mysterious. The Scriptures do not reveal the secret writing. Did he write the adulterous man’s name? Did he know the man? Had the woman been trapped by an angry husband? Did Jesus write the names of several men in the crowd who he knew had adulterous arrangements? Whatever he wrote, it was not irrelevant. Christian interpretation has treated it as irrelevant. But we can assume it had something to do with the situation at hand.

(Rachel C. Wahlberg, Jesus According to a Woman, pp. 21-22).

St. Augustine in his homily says, “Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him”: I particularly love the words of St. Augustine as he describes this scene: Relicti sunt duo, misera et misericordia (“Two of them are left behind: the pitiful woman and Pity incarnate”. Mark Jesus’ reply. It contains justice, clemency, and truth in full measure. Let the one among you who has never sinned be the first to throw a stone at her. Let the sinner be punished, yes—but not by sinners. Let the law be carried out, but not by lawbreakers.

Woman-caught-in-adultery

This, unquestionably, is the voice of justice, justice that pierced those men like a javelin … Two remained behind: the miserable woman, and Mercy. The Lord raised his eyes, and with a gentle look he asked her: Has no one condemned you? She replied: No one, sir. And he said: Neither will I condemn you. What is this, Lord?! Are you giving approval to immorality? Not at all. Take note of what follows: Go and sin no more. You see then that the Lord does indeed pass sentence, but it is sin he condemns, not people … He said: “Neither will I condemn you; you need have no fear of the past, but beware of what you do in the future. Neither will I condemn you: I have blotted out what you have done; now observe what I have commanded, in order to obtain what I have promised.”

(English translation by Sr. Edith Barnecut, OSB, in Journey With the Fathers: Year C; online at the Center for Liturgy, St. Louis University)

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