Lectio: Fifth Sunday of Lent, Year C,
What do you have to say?
Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At daybreak, he appeared in the Temple again; and as all the people came to him, he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman along who had been caught committing adultery; and making her stand there in full view of everybody, they said to Jesus, “Master, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery, and Moses has ordered us in the Law to condemn women like this to death by stoning. What have you to say?” They asked him this as a test, looking for something to use against him.
But Jesus bent down and started writing on the ground with his finger. As they persisted with their question, he looked up and said, “If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Then he bent down and wrote on the ground again.
When they heard this, they went away one by one, beginning with the eldest, until Jesus was left alone with the woman, who remained standing there.
He looked up and said, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she replied. “Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus. “Go your away, and do not sin any more.”
What do you have to say?
W ho are the people you condemn? They may include those you live with, relations, neighbours, as well as a long list of people you hear about on the radio and television. We can spend a good lot of our time condemning, out loud or in our own minds. In the course of any given day a lot of people pass through our minds; our thoughts about some are kind, and about others critical. I know a wise woman who made a resolution to give a safe passage to everyone who comes into her mind: she tries not to criticize or condemn them while they are there.
When I was a child, a neighbour got in trouble with the law. I was with a group of adults who were criticizing her; I was too young to make a comment but I agreed with them. Then one elderly man said, “She is a good woman; she is trying to bring up her family as well as she can.” That was more than fifty years ago: I still remember his words.
The first to throw a stone
Jesus had an extraordinary gift for not condemning people. When the scribes and Pharisees brought the woman who was caught committing adultery, he did not condemn her - and he did not condemn them. First of all he slowed them down. They came, a group of them together, strong and certain in their judgment. There was a moment of silence while Jesus wrote with his finger in the dust. He wasn’t writing words for them to read, but giving them time to realize what they were doing. Then he surprised them. He said, “If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.”He bent down again and began to write with his finger – he gave them more time in total silence.
They came with one voice condemning. Now each of them thought about the challenge Jesus put to them - and one by one they walked away. Jesus helped them to come to their senses.
Go on your way
Neither did he condemn the woman. He knew they had treated her in a cruel way: they had shamed her publicly. He knew that the Law discriminated against women: they made no mention of the man who was committing adultery with her. The story began with everyone looking down on her; it ended with Jesus looking up at her. He restored her dignity; now she had nothing to hide. She could go her way and live her life. She would remember what he said to her: “I don’t condemn you, don’t sin anymore.”
They do know not what they are doingWhen Jesus was dying on the cross, he did not condemn the people who condemned him. He prayed for them, “Father, forgive them; they do know not what they are doing.” Some years ago in a civil war in the Congo, soldiers violently assaulted and raped very many women. One woman described their cruel treatment of her. At the end of a radio interview she was asked how she felt towards them; she said, “I forgive them – they didn’t know what they were doing.” This woman was entitled to justice and each soldier knew exactly what he was doing and should have been held accountable for it. She must have been extremely angry and outraged. With extraordinary big-heartedness, she was able to take into account that these soldiers lived in an atmosphere of extreme violence, were led on by one another, and were blinded by hatred and lust. In a sense – but only in this limited sense - they did not know what they were doing. This remarkable woman made present again the forgiving attitude of Jesus on the cross.
Prayer: Psalm 130
Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord,
Lord, hear my voice!
O let your ears be attentive
to the voice of my pleading.
If you, O Lord, should mark our guilt,
Lord, who would survive?
But with you is forgiveness:
for this we revere you.