In last week’s Gospel reading, we heard the famous parable of the Prodigal Son, a powerful lesson about God’s overwhelming love and forgiveness. Although the young son engaged in scandalous and disrespectful behavior, when he came to his senses, his father immediately forgave him. The father explained his joyful embrace of the wayward son when he said, “This son of mine was dead, and has come to life again; he was lost, and has been found.”
In this week’s Gospel reading, we have another example of God’s overwhelming love and forgiveness: the story of the woman caught in adultery. Jesus’ opponents, the scribes and Pharisees, brought a woman caught in adultery before Him, and demanded, “In the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”
It’s obvious the scribes and Pharisees were tying to trap Jesus. They didn’t particularly care about the woman, or the Law of Moses, or that justice was served. Their only motivation was to force Jesus into a no-win situation so that no matter what He said, they could use it against Him.
If Jesus replied that the woman should be set free, they could accuse Him of ignoring the Law of Moses. If Jesus replied that the woman should be executed, they could accuse Him of being hypocritical about His message of forgiveness. (And speaking of being hypocritical, we know the scribes and Pharisees were full of baloney because they brought only the woman before Jesus. The Law of Moses clearly spelled out that both parties in an adulterous relationship are guilty. Where was the woman’s lover? As far as I can figure, it’s pretty hard to commit adultery by yourself. If she was “caught in the very act,” as the Pharisees claimed, why didn’t they apprehend the guy and bring him before Jesus, too? The answer is obvious: they were hypocrites.)
Anyway, at first Jesus did not reply. Instead He bent down and started writing with His finger on the ground. This is the only place in the Bible that records Jesus writing—but we’re not told what He wrote. (Another on my long list of questions to ask God when I get to Heaven. I think my list now numbers well over 8,000.)
I’ve often speculated about what Jesus wrote. Maybe He wrote down the name of the woman’s lover, who may have been standing there in the crowd clutching a stone. Jesus finally looked up and offered the famous line, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Then, as the angry throng pondered those words, Jesus bent down and started writing again. Maybe at this point He wrote the names of the leading Pharisees’ mistresses. No one knows for sure. But we do know how the crowd finally responded: “They went away one by one, beginning with the elders.”
After everyone left, Jesus said to the woman, “Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she answered.
Jesus then said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
As with last week’s parable of the Prodigal Son, Jesus’ main lesson this week is forgiveness. But while the Prodigal Son is a stark story of pure forgiveness—the father forgave his son completely and started a joyfully celebration—the story of the adulterous woman touches on a couple of additional ideas.
The first is that we must forgive in order to be forgiven ourselves. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus said, “If you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins” (Matthew 6:14-15).
Jesus’ actions in this week’s Gospel obviously saved the woman’s life. But His actions also started the process of saving the souls of the judgmental mob of men (assuming, of course, they were interested in entering into a saving relationship with God). Only when they understood that they too were sinful—maybe the first time they ever considered that possibility—could they become capable of offering forgiveness to someone else. And only when they offered forgiveness to someone else, as Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount, would God Almighty offer forgiveness to them.
Jesus included the other idea addressed this week, I suspect, specifically for the Law and Order folks in the world (a group in which I consider myself a member).
The first 95-percent of this story might cause some people to say something like, “Yeah, but wait a minute, Jesus. If you let her off the hook, you’re condoning sin. And if you let everyone do whatever they feel like doing, you’re not only setting the stage for anarchy and chaos in society, you’re also mocking the whole concept of right and wrong. If there are no consequences for committing sin, then you’re in effect saying there is no difference between righteous living and sinful living.”
Jesus made sure we L&O folks do not overreact—as long as we read to the very end of the episode. He said to the woman, “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
This one sentence confirms that Jesus has not abandoned the concept of right and wrong. Certain things are right, and certain things are wrong. There is a YUUUGE difference between righteousness and sinfulness—such a huge difference, in fact, that Jesus came to earth specifically to bridge the gulf between holy God and sinful mankind.
If you’re ever tempted to think Jesus does not take sin seriously, just remember why He died on the cross. Jesus offered up His sinless life as a ransom for our sinful lives. He died to pay the price for our sin. His Passion and death occurred for one simple reason: Jesus takes sin seriously—deadly seriously.
Jesus also takes love seriously. So much so that He offers forgiveness to people who don’t deserve it: the Prodigal Son, the adulterous woman, me, and you. A person who can look up to Heaven while being tortured to death and say, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing,” is a person who takes love very, very seriously.Next week is Palm Sunday, and the Gospel reading will be the lengthy account of Jesus’ Passion, the culmination of His love for humanity. As Lent draws to a close, let us focus on Jesus and His overwhelming love for us, and the overwhelming forgiveness He offers to us. Let’s make this year’s Easter celebration the most holy and joyful ever.