IT MAY BE NOTICED, if one cares to observe people closely, that the most compassionate and merciful persons to those who have fallen into such mortal sin as murder, adultery and apostasy, or those whom society reject are those who lead holy lives. One, for example, need not doubt the compassion of the late Mother Theresa for the scum of the earth. On the other hand, those who easily condemn people who commit mistake and who cannot easily forgive those who wrong them are those who are self-righteous. The latter usually demand high standards that they themselves are not able to meet. Nowhere is this true than in the Gospel of the Fifth Sunday of Lent, which relates an incident about a woman who was caught in the very act of adultery (John 7:53-8:11). (This story, it may be observed, seems not a part of the original Gospel of John. For one thing, it is not found in all the best manuscripts. Those that contain it place it after 7:36, others at the end of the Gospel. Moreover, other manuscripts have it in the Gospel of Luke. Many scholars note that the style is more Lukan than Johannine. But there is a point to the opinion that the narrative took a long time before it could be included in the Gospel because of the quick and uncomplicated forgiveness of the woman, which seems to contradict the harsh and rigorous penitential discipline in the early Church. But it is an authentic story that goes back to the historical Jesus.)
In the Gospel of John, it may be noted that the preaching of Jesus had such an impact that the Jewish leaders plotted his death (5:18; 7:1). In their determination to expose him as a false prophet and thereby condemn him, they tried to score a point in law. While Jesus was teaching in the Temple area, the Scribes and Pharisees brought to him a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They thought of putting him in a dilemma: if he should agree to have her stoned, he could appear as an enemy of Rome, which alone had the authority over capital punishment. If he would not, he could break the Jewish law, which prescribes stoning for adulterers: “If within the city a man comes upon a maiden who is betrothed, and has relations with her, you shall bring them both out to the gate of the city and there stone them to death” (Deut 22:22-23; see also Lev 20:10). (The dilemma resembles to the one on the question of paying taxes to Caesar (Mark 12:13-17). If Jesus favors the paying of taxes to the Emperor, the common people would reject him, for they saw the paying of taxes as a violation of the commandment that there is only one Lord who gave Israel their land. But if he counsels non-payment of taxes, the Roman would mark him a rebel.)
Poor woman! Dragged out from the experience of personal intimacy, she must have been distraught and disoriented to find herself amid men pointing their accusing fingers to her! She must have covered her head to escape recognition. But what is odious here is not simply that they exposed her shame. It is rather the motive of the Pharisees and Scribes. And they justified their means with it. They were simply using her in their controversy with Jesus over the Jewish law. In fact, they were not even interested in the law. All they wanted was to pin Jesus. They had no qualms about dragging a woman through the mud, treating her as an object to parade their zeal for the law. But the God that Jesus preached is not a God of legalism. He is a God who puts priority on the human person over the law. Before him, who really is without sin? (“All men have sinned and are deprived of the glory of God” [Rom 3:23]). Who does not stand under condemnation? If God were to judge us according to his Word, who would survive? (cf Ps 130:3).
As in the story about the question of paying taxes to Caesar, Jesus in this narrative threw the burden of the problem to the questioners by his advise: “Let the man among you who has no sin be the first to cast a stone at her” (John 8:7b). In uttering these words, Jesus exposed the self-righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees. Thinking over these words, they must have realized their unexposed, hidden faults, and under the gaze of Jesus, became ashamed of them, as one by one they drifted away, beginning with the eldest (John 8:9). For one thing, how in the world they knew adultery was going on? By going away without a word, they admitted that they were no less sinful than they woman the dragged out. Which is enough to disqualify them from judging her. “By your judgment you convict yourself, since you do the very same things” (Rom 2:1b). But as we noted last Sunday, God is a God of love and compassion. He loves us even in our sinfulness: “It is precisely in this that God proves his love for us: that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom 5:8).
Jesus avoided the dilemma by raising the issue from mere legalism to what really matters. In sharp contrast with the Scribes and Pharisees, Jesus faced the woman as a human person, an object of God’s love, compassion and mercy. It must have been a liberating experience for the woman to realize that all her accusers have walked away; she, who was miserable, was left alone to face Jesus who embodied the mercy and compassion of God. In the famous words of St Augustine, Relicti sunt duo: misera et misericordia. The Lord--even though he could have judged because he had no sin, unlike those who wished to stone her-- never uttered a word of condemnation. All he offered was the love of God, and that love would have enabled her to start a new life: “You may go, but from now on, avoid sin” (John 8:11). Sin in society is not stamped out by killing sinners; that would only multiply sin. To kill criminals is to perpetuate murder and criminality. The community grows when all realize that they are all a party to sin, and when sinners are given the chance to repent and experience the love and mercy of God.