Sunday, March 21, 2010


We are very familiar with the story of the trap being set for Jesus by the “scribes and Pharisees,” using for bait a woman “caught in the very act of committing adultery.” Before reflecting on the story itself as it is presented to us in John’s Gospel, chapter 8, verses 1-11, it is worth noting a bit of what in Biblical studies is known as ‘textual criticism.’

Virtually all of the oldest manuscripts and papyrus fragments we have of the New Testament do not have this story in John’s Gospel. And in some of the late manuscripts that do finally contain this story, it is located in differing places, including the end of the Gospel (rather like an appendix, even as John 21 is already a sort of appendix), or even in Luke’s Gospel (at 21:38). The story itself seems best known in the part of the Christian Church that spoke Latin as opposed to Greek (the important early commentator on it is Augustine, then much later Gregory the Great and Bede). So one thing we know: it wasn’t originally part of the Fourth Gospel.

Yet one other thing we know: it is accepted by the whole Church as canonical and inspired Scripture. So however it came to be in the New Testament (and if this isn’t the work of the Holy Spirit…!), we honor it now as the Word of God.

In this story is Jesus allowing the woman to “skate” for her sin? No. More importantly, though, He will not allow the “scribes and Pharisees” to get away with their sin, either: the sin of cynical and hypocritical using of the woman as an object (and, of course, allowing the man to escape—after all, she was caught “in the very act”!).

Augustine is poignant in his description of this scene: in His disgust at the manipulations of these men, Jesus will not even look at them; He will trace (write?) on the ground in an attempt to distract Himself, temporarily, from the meanness of the situation.

It’s almost as though this is the time in His life among us when our Savior was most tempted to sin in reacting violently to these men. Majestically, He stands up to make His famous (and devastating) pronouncement about “the one among you who is without sin,” and then goes back to His tracing/drawing on the ground. The One who was in fact without sin was the One who refused to throw the first stone.

What is amazing to me is that after they all leave (“beginning with the elders”), the woman is still standing there. What made her remain when everyone else departed? Was it just that she was so stunned by Jesus’ statement that she was frozen in front of Him? Again, Augustine captures the moment with the grace of Latin that characterizes his writing: Relicti sunt duo, misera et Misericordia (The two were left, the miserable [woman] and Mercy Incarnate). And Jesus charges her—never again commit this (or any other) sin.

And Jesus charges us in the same way: “Be merciful in your actions with one another. Be slow to condemn others and swift to repent of your own sins. I know the price and the seriousness of all sin—I bore them on the Cross, and I have won the victory of forgiveness by that suffering. Realize the price that has been paid for your redemption. Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”

1 comment:

  1. One can absorb this historical and biblical blog with mixed emotions.
    How our Lord handles this situation with compassion and with strict guidelines 'to sin no more'. A person with pronounced humility could imitate his gesture. Now, a more horrific and insidious behavior has been headlined concerning our beloved Catholic church and its victims of sexual abuse. It seems quite orchestrated that all this scandal is coming to the world press at this time. Particularly to 'hit' upon our revered Holy Father, Pope Benedict XVI, and his native country, Germany. These Incidents have obviously been smoldering for many years. And the correction, the penance, for these aberrations - how is this to be accomplished?