Monday of week 5 of Lent – Gospel


Commentary on John 8:1-11

There are some doubts as to whether this story about a woman accused of adultery really belongs to John’s gospel. Some would say the style is more reminiscent of Luke and one can easily imagine it fitting into his gospel.

The scene takes place on the Mount of Olives, just outside the walls of Jerusalem. It is the only mention of this area in the gospels apart from the accounts of the agony in the garden. Yet it is likely that Jesus and his disciples would have gone there from time to time.

There is no question at any stage that the woman was guilty as charged. In our day, of course, we might like to ask what happened to the man. It takes two to commit adultery (unless it is in the secrecy of the mind). And which of them was the married partner? Both of them? Or was it only the man?

But in a society which was very concerned about legitimacy and the continuation of the family line, the burden of integrity was on the wife. “Extramarital” affairs of the husband were taken far less seriously. Any children arising out of such a liaison were the woman’s problem and did not affect the ‘purity’ of the family line.

What is also highly distasteful in this scene is that the woman is dragged in by the scribes and Pharisees as a pawn in a game they are playing with Jesus. There are a number of such ‘plants’ in the Gospel story.

“The Law says that this woman should be condemned to death by stoning. What is your opinion?” It is a little like the question about paying taxes to Caesar. Whatever Jesus is likely to say, he will convict himself out of his own mouth. In fact, the Law specified death but not the manner of execution for adulterers. However Deuteronomy prescribes stoning for a betrothed virgin caught in adultery. (If it were not for Joseph, this could have been the fate of Mary when she was found with child.) It was also the prerogative of witnesses to the adultery to throw the first stones. (Deut 17:7) – hence, Jesus’ invitation to his accusers.

If Jesus says she should be forgiven, then he is in violation of the Law; and, if he says she should be punished, then he contradicts his own teaching about mercy and compassion for the sinner.

Jesus cleverly throws the ball back in their court. “If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” In a strange show of humility, they do not reply. They are reduced to silence and one by one, beginning with the eldest, they go out.

Eventually Jesus and the woman are left alone. (It is no embarrassment to Jesus to be alone in the presence of a convicted adulterer):

Has no one condemned you?
No one, sir.
Neither do I condemn you; go away, and do not sin any more.

Does this mean that Jesus condones adultery? Not at all. But he sees in the woman the seeds of repentance and the potential for conversion. Jesus looks always at the present and the future and never at the past.

Looking at this story we can first look forward with confidence to the same compassion from Jesus for our sinfulness. But we also need to have the honesty of the Pharisees who did not dare punish the woman because they acknowledged that they too were sinners.

How often have we unhesitatingly sat in judgment on someone for wrongs they have done with never a thought of our own culpability, picking specks out of others’ eyes while there are planks in our own?

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