The story of the woman caught in adultery in today’s gospel presents a holistic picture of humanity’s past, present, and future. Significantly, it reinforces God’s overflowing grace and mercy. Apparently, the Scribes and the Pharisees had a case against the woman as they claimed she was “caught in the very act of committing adultery.” Based on the law of Moses, such would require capital punishment, to stone her to death. Their interpretation of the law of Moses is hinged on strict observance of rules with little emphasis on the spirit of the law.
In this woman’s case, no one is on her side. She is on her own. Imagine the shame of being paraded as an adulterer. No one talked about her partner in the act, just that she was caught in adultery. And they insist, “Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women” (Jn. 8:4-5). What they present about this woman is a negative reputation. Her past is dirty and now she’s to be condemned by the law because she has no future.
There are a lot of gaps in the story, which tells exactly what is in the minds of these accusers. They demand justice from the law without being just. They are looking for something beyond what they present and had an ulterior motive to try to trap Christ. So, they ask Jesus, “What do you say?” Can the God of mercy condemn mercy? Scripture says, “They said this to test him.” Strictly, these scribes and Pharisees do not observe the law themselves, otherwise, they would have pushed for justice. The first sin here is duplicity, then unwarranted self-righteousness, and violation of human dignity. This woman is like the fisherman’s bait meant to catch their big-fish-Jesus. If he says “Stone her,” then he isn’t merciful. If he says, “Don’t stone her, he denies the law.” This is like the coin they tossed at him asking “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar.”
At that moment, Jesus bends down and begins to write. What Jesus is writing is not as important as why he is writing? He is writing for several reasons here. The Lord is writing to help them reflect on the meaning of the law. He is writing to help them reflect also on their commitment to truth. He is writing to help them foresee the ultimate day of judgment, on that day of reckoning. He is writing to give them the opportunity to drop their stones. He is writing most importantly to make them realize that humanity would never outsmart God. There is one significant incident during which a finger wrote in the Bible. Let’s see why the Book of Daniel, Ch. 5 is relevant to this passage:
King Belshazzar gave a great banquet for a thousand of his nobles and drank wine with them. While Belshazzar was drinking his wine, he gave orders to bring in the gold and silver goblets that Nebuchadnezzar his father had taken from the temple in Jerusalem, so that the king and his nobles, his wives, and his concubines might drink from them. So, they brought in the gold goblets that had been taken from the temple of God in Jerusalem, and the king and his nobles, his wives, and his concubines drank from them. As they drank the wine, they praised the gods of gold and silver, of bronze, iron, wood, and stone. Suddenly the fingers of a human hand appeared and wrote on the plaster of the wall, near the lampstand in the royal palace. The king watched the hand as it wrote. His face turned pale, and he was so frightened that his legs became weak and his knees were knocking. (5:1-6)
Interpreting those writings for the king, Daniel told him that God had numbered his days because he had been weighed on a scale and found wanting. Those fingers exposed the king’s faults to him. On Mount Sinai, God wrote on the tablets for Moses, the old law being wrongfully interpreted by the Pharisees and the scribes as they present this woman before Jesus. Jesus is the New Law and its fulfillment. Through his writing, God is weighing these accusers on a scale and they are all found wanting. When Jesus cast out a demon in the gospel, the scribes and the Pharisees accused him of casting the demon by the power of Beelzebub and asked for a sign. Jesus responded, “If I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has come upon you” (Lk. 11:20). Jesus is God’s finger of justice, mercy, and love. He no longer writes on the board as in the case of Belshazzar. He no longer writes on the tablet as in the case of Moses. He encounters humanity directly as in the case of the woman brought to him for condemnation. Belshazzar’s face turned pale and he was so frightened that his legs became weak and his knees were knocking.
Jesus’ fingers spell freedom for the oppressed. He questions them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” The people start to leave “one by one beginning with the elders.” Obviously, they become frightened. This recalls the Psalms, “If you, O Lord, should mark our iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3)
Obviously, the accusers of this lady are not in the position to judge. They can neither stand their past nor face their present, so they walk away. The accused is left alone with Jesus. What a privilege! Her life is going to change. Her past is going to be cleaned up. Her present becomes an opportunity. Her future is going to be transformed. Jesus looks up and says to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replies, “No one, Sir.” And he says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go home and from now on do not sin anymore.” This is the real Law of freedom, “For the law of the Spirit of life in Christ Jesus has set you free from the law of sin and of death” (Rom. 8:2).
Fast-forward this story and see this lady preaching to those people who brought him to Jesus after this encounter. She is going to be telling them about “the supreme good” of knowing God’s mercy as Paul preaches in the Letter to the Philippians (2nd reading). This will remain the best encounter of her life. The ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle described the highest good as not something that can be maximized; rather, it is the end for the sake of which all other goods are chosen -- eudaimonia. For this woman, this encounter with Christ is the end upon which every other thing in her life will depend. She encounters the supreme advantage of mercy over selfishness. This woman is an example of God’s prophecy through Isaiah, “See, I am doing something new.”
My dear friends, as you hear this story, what comes to your mind when you remember your past? Dirty things - addiction, drugs, alcohol, stealing, abuse, failure, or bad sexual behaviors. The woman caught in adultery had all that. In this woman, we see God’s transformation at work. The human story becomes God’s own story, which is a break from sin into eternal life. Jesus is God’s finger. His mission is to rewrite our stories, to write our names on the book of life. In Jesus is God’s love unveiled for us, the law of grace and mercy.
How do you respond to this invitation? What is your attitude towards others, maybe towards someone caught in a bad habit or behavior? Do you have your stone in hand ready to throw? Your dad, mom, husband, wife, brother, sister, neighbor, colleague who has committed an offense against you? How about your ex? Perhaps, you caught her or him in the very act and cannot set her free? What are you waiting for? Listen to these words, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.” You have two options: 1) drop the stone and pick up grace. 2) hold the stone and walk away from grace. The stone and God’s grace are incompatible. The stone signals condemnation while grace speaks freedom. Jesus sets free and gives new opportunities. Let us drop our stones today and embrace God’s grace. Let us continue to strain forward for greater things. There are no stones in heaven.
Readings: 1st- Isaiah 43:16-21; 2nd- Phil. 3:8-14; Gospel- Jn. 8:1-11