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 by Satan in the wilderness. This issue was: What kind of a Messiah would He be? Today, as we come to the end of Lent and approach Holy Week, we find Jesus being put to the test once again, this time in a different way. The scribes and Pharisees present their test case by dragging away a woman they caught in the act of adultery and then dumping her at Jesus’ feet while demanding that He answer their tricky test question.
Jesus was frequently challenged and tested by the religious authorities of His time. Once, you will recall, the Sadducees and Pharisees (two factions of Jews who mutually despised each other) presented Jesus with the case of a woman who had survived a succession of seven husbands, all of whom had died and all of whom happened to be brothers. His detractors wanted Jesus to tell them whose wife she would be in the resurrection from the dead. His response to those testing Him was that their rules would be simply irrelevant in heaven; none of their rules would apply.
On yet 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 Jews pay the Roman tax?” If He responded “yes” they could accuse Him of idolatry, of bowing down before the image of Caesar whom the pagan Romans regarded as a god. This would be blasphemy for any believing Jew. We would do well to remember here that they would shriek that blasphemy later when they wanted Pontius Pilate to crucify Christ. They shouted: “We have no king but Caesar!” In other words, in order to have Jesus crucified these scribes and Pharisees committed the sin of blasphemy. On the other hand, 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 crime for which Pilate ultimately had Him crucified.
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 higher law of God? It’s a question being put to us in our day.
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 are testing Him to see whether or not He will uphold the Law of Moses.
But there is a second, unspoken question, once again involving the Roman authorities. The Romans had forbidden the Jews from employing capital punishment. The Jewish authorities were not allowed by the Romans to put anyone to death because only the Roman governor could execute accused and convicted prisoners. So, if Jesus responded “yes” to the Pharisees, thus affirming the Law of Moses that she should 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 the tricky test case they put to Jesus; 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 Shall 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.
Capital punishment is, for us in our time, another fundamental issue in our day’s great national debates over human life. Should we do away with capital punishment when felons have been convicted of heinous crimes? What sort of punishment do they deserve? Some of our fifty States have constitutional prohibitions against capital punishment. Lately, however, there are those who are calling for it to be employed in punishment for certain capital murder crimes, particularly those in which police officers have been shot in cold blood.
In the chorus of voices surrounding Him and 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 under the Law or 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 was not whether adultery is a sin; the question was: “Under whose jurisdiction is her punishment to be administered?”
Jesus bends down and begin writing in the sand. In all of the gospels it is the only recorded event 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 the finger 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 to her 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 being raised, it is God the Son who is raised 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 waters of baptism along with the 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 tricky question put to Him about capital punishment. 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 whoring after instead of remaining faithful to God.
For you see, adultery is after all idolatry.
May you fly to His mercy – it is ever yours.