The Gospel reading for the fifth Sunday of Lent (Cycle C) is John 8:1-11. This is the familiar story of the woman caught in the very act of committing adultery, brought before Jesus. The crowd notes that Mosaic law stipulates that she should be stoned to death, and asks Jesus what he recommends. It is in this passage that he famously replies: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
At that, the crowd disperses, until only Jesus and the woman are left. The story continues:
Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
This short passage elicits a number of comments…
Within the greater context of the Gospel story, the woman is brought before Jesus for the primary purpose of tripping him up. This popular teacher already has a reputation as being somewhat lenient with sinners. If he condemns the woman outright, he is not merciful, but if he does not condemn her, then he is going against the law. On the surface, to the enemies of Jesus, this seems like a surefire trap.
His answer bespeaks the infinite mercy of God, and also is a verbal gem that stops his accusers cold.
Per the text…
“Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”
They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.
But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
What was he writing on the ground? Some say that it was a list of sins committed by the accusers, others say that if the woman was a prostitute, it was a short list of her clients, many of whom were standing there accusing her. At any rate, if she was really caught in the very act of committing adultery, how come her partner does not also stand accused?
At best, this is far from a just tribunal. Indeed, it has been said that we can learn much about a society by the way it treats its women. Just how was she caught, anyway? Was it a set-up from the beginning?
Note that Jesus is not exactly gentle in giving out his mercy. The woman is made to stand before the crowd, suffering plenty of embarrassment—not to mention fear for her life— before she is finally pardoned. Then he admonishes her not to sin anymore. Some texts render it: “But from now on, avoid this sin.”
We are left to ponder whether or not she avoids this sin, all sins, or backslides within days. Interestingly, it is not even known if she is repentant during this process, or if she thanks Jesus for saving her life.
Another theme here is that God prefers conversion to punishment, and surely, conversion is at the very heart of Lent.