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. “Extracurricular” 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?

ALTERNATIVE GOSPEL: When John 8:1-11 is read on the 5th Sunday in Cycle C, it can be replaced by John 8:12-20, a text which immediately follows the incident of the woman caught in adultery.

Commentary on John 8:12-20

“I AM the Light of the world.” This is one of the seven “I AM” statements which Jesus makes in the course of John’s gospel.* When Jesus uses the term ‘I AM’ it is not just a version of the verb ‘to be’. It echoes the name that God gave when Moses at the burning bush asked the voice he was hearing to identify itself. The Hebrew is variously translated as “I AM who I AM.” Later philosophers and theologians will see in this statement God identifying himself as pure existence and the source of all that exists. Jesus also lays claim to use this term also and does so seven times in John’s gospel. It also appears in other contexts as when Jesus identifies himself as the Messiah to the Samaritan woman (John 4).
In the Prologue to John’s gospel the author also says:
All things came to be through him,
and without him nothing came to be.
What came to be through him was life
and this life was the light of the human race. (John 1:3-5)
We are to walk in that light, and, in a reflected way, that is, insofar as we reflect Jesus in ourselves, we too are to be the light of the world. After delivering the Beatitudes, Jesus said to his disciples: “You are the salt of the earth… you are the light of the world (cf. Matt 5:13-14). We are to be the moon to Jesus’ sun.
But Jesus’ self-testimony is challenged by some Pharisees because they say there are no other witnesses to his words. Jesus counters by saying that he knows what he is talking about while his hearers know nothing of his real origins. As far as they are concerned he is a carpenter’s son from Nazareth. They are looking at him from a merely human point of view and, contrary to what they see, Jesus is not alone. There is a witness to back him up, namely, his own Father.
Speaking from their human perspective, they ask where his Father is. Jesus tells them that they neither know him (that is, his real identity) nor do they know the Father. If they really knew Jesus, they would know the Father as well because, for those who know, Jesus is the mirror of his Father. “Who sees me sees the Father,” Jesus will tell Philip at the Last Supper.
It is therefore very important for us to know Jesus intimately for through him we go to God and in him we begin to understand something about the nature of God. We do that principally in two ways: by steeping ourselves in the Scriptures and by prayer. If we have not been very good at doing either of these things, Lent is an excellent time to start. It may already be the fifth week, but, where getting closer to God is concerned, it is never too late.
*The seven statements are:
I AM the Bread of Life (6:34,48)
I AM the Light of the World (8:12)
I AM the Gate (10:7)
I AM the Good Shepherd (10:11)
I AM the Resurrection and the Life (11:25)
I AM the Way, the Truth and the Life (14:6)
I AM the true Vine (15:1)

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