Fr. Charles Irvin
Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11
The Sundays of Lent began five weeks ago with Jesus being tested in the wilderness. What kind of a Messiah would He be? That was the question being put to Him. Today, as we draw toward the end of Lent and approach Holy Week, we find Jesus being put to the test once again. The scribes and Pharisees present their test case by dragging away a woman caught in the act of adultery and then dumping her at His feet while demanding that He answer their tricky test question.
Jesus was frequently challenged and tested by the authorities of His time. Once, you will recall, the Sadducees and Pharisees, two types of Jews who mutually detested each other, presented Jesus with the case of a woman who had survived a succession of seven husbands, all of whom had died, all of whom happened to be brothers. Those who were testing Jesus wanted Him to tell them whose wife she would be in the resurrection of us all from the dead. His response was that their rules would simply be irrelevant in heaven; none of their rules would apply.
On another occasion the scribes and Pharisees presented Jesus with a Roman coin that had the image of Caesar imprinted on it. “Is the Roman tax legal?” they wanted to know. “Should they pay the Roman tax?” If He responded “yes” they should, then they could accuse Him of idolatry, of bowing down before the image of Caesar whom the pagans regarded as a god, the ultimate blasphemy for any believing Jew. We would do well to remember now that they will shriek that blasphemy later when they want Pontius Pilate to crucify Christ. They shouted: “We have no king but Caesar!”
On the other hand, as here in the case of this woman, if Jesus replied “No, don’t pay the Roman tax” they would denounce Him to the Roman authorities for treason, for fomenting civil unrest, rebellion and revolution.
The response of Jesus saying: “Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” is a response that still rings in our ears in our day. What is the realm of the Church and what is the realm of the State in our country where we try to keep Church and State separate? When do I obey the civil law and when do I obey the moral law of God?
Here in today’s Gospel we find the authorities testing Jesus once again. Dumping a woman at His feet, a woman caught in the very act of adultery, they remind Jesus of the Law of Moses. They want to test Him to see whether or not He will uphold the Law of Moses.
But there is a second, unspoken question, involving the Roman authorities once again. The Romans had forbidden the Jews from employing capital punishment. They were not allowed by the Romans to put anyone to death because only the Roman government could execute accused and convicted prisoners. So if Jesus responded “yes” to the Pharisees, thus affirming the Law of Moses that she be stoned to death, they would be able to denounce him to the Roman governor as an enemy of Rome. If He responded “no” to the Pharisees, they would be able to accuse him in front of the Jews for being a traitor to the Law of Moses, guilty of treason and selling out His Jewish heritage.
The scribes and Pharisees were deadly serious about their tricky test case they put to Jesus; this was one of several traps they had set for Him. The sin of this woman (and of the man who was involved with her) struck at the very meaning and purpose of marriage. The violation of one of the Ten Commandments was involved, namely the sixth: “Thou Shalt Not Commit Adultery,” and something had to be done about it. Jesus could not simply ignore the matter — things had to be set right. For the woman’s accusers, capital punishment was called for.
And capital punishment is a fundamental element in one of our day’s great national debates. Should we do away with capital punishment when felons have been convicted of heinous crimes? That will be one of the major issues involved in the forthcoming debate over what to do with the two boys in Jonesboro, Arkansas who shot down so many school children and teachers in their killing rampage of this past week. How should they be tried? What sort of punishment do they deserve? Should they be executed by the State of Arkansas for what they have done?
In the chorus of voices surrounding Him, among the fists being raised and fingers being pointed, Jesus had to respond. He had to set things right while threading a dangerous and difficult path between the boundaries of Roman law and the Law of Moses. Should capital punishment be administered to this woman by the Law of Moses? Or should Roman civil law be observed? Note the question. It presumes the woman should be executed, that she should be put to death. The question does NOT deal with whether or not adultery is a sin. The question is: Under whose jurisdiction is her punishment to be administered?
Jesus bends down and begins writing in the sand. It’s the only event recorded in all of the gospels in which Jesus is reported as writing something. His finger, instead of being pointed either at the Romans or at the Pharisees or at the woman herself, is pointed into the ground. His finger of accusation is writing something in the sand. There is no question of finger-pointing in blame involved here — other than Christ’s finger of accusation being directed inward into the souls of all involved in this incident. And as a result, all of the shouting and blaming and finger-pointing stops. Stones drop to the ground, and silence falls over all.
Looking into themselves, all of those calling for this woman’s death realize where REAL GUILT is to be found. They were using the very life of this woman merely as a trick question. They all drop their stones and withdraw in silence. With no one left to bring charges that she should suffer execution and die, Jesus turns and says: “Is there no one here who condemns you to death?” “No one,” she replies. “Well, then, I don’t condemn you to death either. Go now and stop sinning. You have another chance. Now go and get your life straightened out.”
All of this echoes what Jesus was about to teach his disciples. “God sent His only Son into the world not to condemn the world but rather to save it.” God indeed judges and passes sentence, but it is sin he condemns, not people. People he saves; sin he condemns. Instead of the stone of capital punishment and execution being raised, it is God the Son who is raised while nailed on a cross. Christ does not raise a fist of righteousness but rather is Himself raised heavenward in order to set things right and restore balance in the scales of justice. His finger of accusation is nailed to the Cross; his heart, far from being cold and hard as stone, is opened up with a spear.
And from His pierced side flows the water and the Blood of our Church’s sacraments, particularly the cleansing flow of water that washes us clean in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the Sacrament of God’s forgiveness . . . something that is the very opposite of the capital punishment tricky question put to Him in today’s gospel account. He has indeed set things right; He has made all things new. In Him we find forgiveness for our sins and a chance to start our lives over again after we have committed our own many, many adulteries with our false gods, whom we have gone running after instead of running to God.
For you see, adultery is after all idolatry.
May His mercy be ever yours.