5th Lent [C] 2001

Fr. Charles Irvin

Isaiah 43, 16-21; Philippians 3, 8-14; St. John 8, 1-11

Today’s Gospel is a “made for TV” story of sex, scandal, trial and justice. We have here a woman who, while in the act of committing adultery, was dragged out into a public courtyard where she withers in front of a hundred eyes. Some of those eyes were narrow and slitted in condemning judgment; others were leering in lust. And, of course, her male partner remained anonymous. Doesn’t that always seem to be the case?

And to what court was she dragged? She wasn’t dragged in front of Pontius Pilate, nor was she taken to the Jewish Sanhedrin for judgment. No. She was dumped at the feet of Jesus while he was teaching. The equivalent would be to have a young woman dumped here in front of us during these next few moments and publicly charged with having sex outside of marriage.

We must recognize that it was not really the woman who was being put in trial… it was Jesus. If he let her off he would be accused of being soft in crime. Worse still, he would be accused of rejecting the Law of Moses and Jewish Holy Scripture. In other words, if he excused her he would be a traitor to his faith. And if he allowed here to be put to death then he would be accused of favoring capital punishment. All of his teachings about forgiveness would be thrown out the window. This was a very clever trap.

So he dropped to his knee and began writing in the dust! This is the only time in the gospels where it is recorded that Jesus wrote anything at all. A whole lot of ink has been spilled in speculation about what he wrote there in the dust. Was he once again pointing out that we are dust and unto dust we shall return? Was he making a statement that in comparison with God’s judgments our human judgments are but dust and are soon blown away in the winds of life? We will never know until that moment when we die and face Christ’s judgment of what we have done with our lives.

One thing we do know about is the power that love has to change our lives. “Behold,” says God, “I am making all things new.”

I just read a story about a twelve-year-old boy who spent the summer at his grandfather’s farm in Nebraska. He had a wonderful time. His grandfather taught him how to drive a tractor, something any twelve year old boy would love. He taught him about the corn that he hoped would be knee high by the fourth of July–a sign that it would be a great harvest. And the boy did not have to join into all the farm chores! He simply rolled over and went back to sleep when he heard his grandfather getting up in the dark hours before dawn. He helped out for a while each day, but grandfather understood when after just a few hours on the tractor he left to go swimming or play with boys his age from other farms.

As the Fourth of July approached, the corn crop was showing great promise. Now to celebrate the Fourth, the boy and his friends had gotten hold of some firecrackers. The grandfather had told the boy to stay out of the cornfields with those things. It had been pretty dry for the last week or so. But grandmother was not too pleased with cherry bombs going off so near her farmhouse and told the kids to get away from the house. So the boys went off to the edge of the fields and started lighting the firecrackers. One thing led to another and soon the boys were doing something extremely dangerous. They were lighting firecrackers and throwing them. That’s how children lose fingers and parts of their hands. That is also how fires start. And sure enough the farmer’s grandson threw one firecracker real high into the air. The wind took it a bit and it fell into the cornfield. There was no bang. It must have been a dud. About ten minutes later, the boys smelled the smoke. The saw some flames and realized what happened. They tried to beat the flames down with their shirts, but they only made things worse. Then the wind started to blow again. The fire spread throughout that field, and then to the field next to it. Soon the whole crop was in flames. Everyone in the area came to fight the fire. They were successful in saving only the farmhouse.

The boy tried to hide over by the swimming hole. His grandfather found him there at the end of that terrible day. The boy expected a severe punishment. Instead, his grandfather just said to him, “Let’s go home, boy.” That boy knew that he had sinned. He had disobeyed his grandfather. Now his grandfather would suffer for his sin. But the boy’s grandfather was more concerned with the love he had for his grandson than he was with making the boy pay for his sin.

That love transformed the boy. He is now a Catholic priest. He attributes his call to follow the Lord as flowing from his grandfather’s forgiveness and love. “Behold,” says God, “I am making all things new.”

Back to the story about the woman caught in the act of adultery. You need to know that this story almost didn’t make it into the writings of the New Testament. It seems that many early Christians felt it was “too soft on crime”. It was seen as scandalous. But then so was the story about the prodigal son.

And we need to note, too, that Jesus never said that what the woman did was not a sin. He recognized it was a sin but evidently didn’t think she should receive the death penalty for it. He himself was about to be judged, convicted and condemned. He himself was about to suffer the death penalty for her. What he really wanted was for her to change her life, which is why he told her to go and sin no more. Adultery is a sin after all. It attacks the very heart of what it means to be a family, which is why in those days it was judged to be worthy of the death penalty.

What happens after we receive God’s forgiveness is the point of the story. And that is what you need to ponder today after you leave here. What has happened to you as a result of Christ’s forgiveness? He suffered the death penalty for you… has that mattered to you at all?

About Charles Irvin

Fr. Charlie was ordained a priest June 3, 1967 and has served as pastor of St. Mary Student Chapel in Ann Arbor, founded Holy Spirit parish in Hamburg, MI, served as pastor of St. Francis of Assisi parish in Ann Arbor and was pastor of St. Mary parish in Manchester, MI when he entered Senior Priest status in 2001. In 1999 he was appointed Founding Editor of FAITH Magazine which has grown into Faith Catholic Publishing located in Lansing, MI. He is now very active in his “retirement.”