A Modern Bible Story

by Fr. Denis Lemieux

[She] had been caught in adultery … Woman, has no one condemned you? …  Neither do I condemn you.

This Gospel—John 8:1-11—which comes on the 5th Sunday of Lent this year on April 2 is one of the most beautiful and most beloved Gospels in the canon of the New Testament.

It is charged with drama and pathos. It’s got everything, really, that a good story needs: conflict, suspense, sex, violence. The issues it explores—sin, guilt, shame, exposure, punishment, mercy—are as relevant today as they were 2000 years ago.

The actions and attitudes of all the characters in this Gospel are as contemporary and familiar to us as today’s newspaper or Twitter feed. The contemporary prevalence of cancel culture and social media name calling is really this Gospel lived out in the digital age.

The story of the woman caught in adultery is of profound importance. But we have to read it carefully and understand it properly. At times, this Gospel can be used to justify a kind of moral relativism, a fuzziness about sin, about right and wrong.

Jesus can be misinterpreted here as saying, “Well, it doesn’t matter what you do. It’s OK.”

What he really says is go and sin no more. There’s no question in this Gospel that adultery is a sin. It would be a bad misreading of the text to say that there’s some kind of ambiguity introduced here that should make us unclear about good and evil and the moral law. That’s not what’s being said here.

This Gospel does have something most challenging to say to us about sin and justice and the moral law. The first thing we have to note about this is that the Pharisees and Scribes here could not care less about justice and the law, at least not in this story.

They’re not seeking justice; they’re not applying the law of Moses to this poor woman. If they had the slightest interest in justice and the law, they would have brought witnesses: two witnesses are needed to sustain a charge. And they would have brought the man: the law of Moses makes no differentiation between the man and the woman in cases of adultery.

They’re out to get Jesus. That’s all they care about at this point—trapping Jesus—and they are using this unfortunate woman and her objectively sinful condition and actions to get at Jesus.

They don’t care about the law and justice, and they sure don’t care about her. She’s just a stick for them to beat Jesus up with, a chess piece they are moving against him to trap him. She’s not a person, a child of God, a daughter of Israel. They have no love for her, no concern for her spiritual condition, for her state of soul. She’s cannon fodder.

And Jesus looks down and writes on the ground. In the culture of the Middle East, to look away from someone who’s talking to you (for instance, to look down and start writing something) is essentially to communicate “I’m outta here.”

Jesus is disengaging. He’s checked out. While they’re pointing fingers and hurling accusations and demanding Jesus do something about this, he is simply not there anymore.

This is deeply relevant to us, isn’t it? Our world today, especially in our political culture, seems virtually addicted to finger pointing, blame-gaming, and public shaming of those who we wish to score off of or humiliate and discredit.

In the cancel culture typical of certain social media platforms, people’s lives can be derailed and even ruined due to a “wrong” opinion or other offenses against current standards of social propriety.

On a more direct personal level, gossip about the affairs and misdeeds of others is a perennial human pastime. It is a common reality to delight in exposing and discussing the flaws and foibles, sins and scandals, of both public figures and our immediate neighbors.

There are lots of reasons why we do this, but let’s be clear about it: when we do this, we are using the person.

Even if everything we’re saying is true, even if the person “was caught in the very act of committing adultery” or whatever.

Gossip reduces the person to an object to be discussed, snickered at, to be used to build up our own ego at the other’s expense, to get revenge, or lots of other motivations, mostly pretty shabby.

When we gossip about people, we are using them. We do exactly what the Pharisees and Scribes do to this poor woman. Even if it is a public figure and we think it’s OK because they are insulated by fame and fortune, we are using them, nonetheless.

And to whatever extent we do that, Jesus disengages himself from us. Jesus looks away, Jesus writes on the ground. Jesus is, simply, gone.

This is what is at stake in the question both of private gossip and of public blaming and shaming. When we play that blame game, put on our judge’s robes and wig, bang the gavel, and court is in session…

Well, Jesus goes away from us when we do this. Because the Lord is not like that. Jesus does not use anyone. Jesus does not reduce any person to an object of public scorn, a figure of fun, a scapegoat or anything like that. Jesus gazes upon each one of us with infinite love, infinite tenderness, infinite promise of mercy.

And he says to us if you have not sinned, throw the first stone. Throw as many stones as you like, if you have no sin in you.

In all matters of sin, guilt, shame, punishment, morality, right, wrong—we all stand before the Lord. We are all caught in the act, by Him. For we who are Christians, there can never be this terrible pointing of fingers, throwing of stones, humiliating and accusing of the other.

No. It is always a question of my sin, my guilt, my need for mercy. My standing before the Lord, like this woman. As long as we play the blame game, we’re not standing before the Lord. It’s our choice.

I like to imagine alternate endings to gospel stories. At the end of this one, why did the Pharisees and Scribes leave?

Jesus didn’t tell them to, after all. He confronted them with the reality of their own personal sin, that’s all. They all left. What if they hadn’t—at least a scribe or two or three?

I think the Lord, after speaking his words of mercy and grace to the woman, would have walked up to each of them as well and said, “I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.”

This is the only way we can hear those words from God. We have to stand before him in humility, in truth, in repentance. It’s kind of the point of Lent, don’t you think, to get us there?

Certainly, our world today could use a lot more Christians willing to stand before the Lord crying out for his mercy and forgiveness for our sins, and not so many quick to point out the sins of their brothers and sisters. Let’s all ask for mercy, then, so that mercy may flow freely to us and through us to all.