Early in the morning Jesus came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?" They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She said, "No one, sir." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again." (8:2-11)
I think this is a wonderful story, and very moving. Jesus is seated in the precincts of the Temple, and is teaching the people who come to him. A woman is brought before him, caught in a sexually compromising situation with someone not her husband. There are witnesses. The offending male seems to have slipped away. The religious leaders, referred to as the scribes and Pharisees (which is unusual in John), do not show any real interest or concern for her in her shame and distress. She is a pawn, not a person. They are using her as a way to entrap and discredit Jesus. It seems a no win situation. If Jesus urges her release, he will stand accused of failing to uphold the Mosaic Law and tradition. If he advocates that she be stoned to death, he will appear as lacking in compassion, (contradicting much of his teaching), and will also be acting against the decrees of the Romans, who claimed for themselves the right to execution.
Jesus, aware of the trap and the hidden agenda, kneels on the ground and doodles in the dust. It is a very clever reaction, which wrongfoots his adversaries. When insistently pressed for an answer, he stands upright and reveals his decision, which releases the woman from lynch law justice. The first stone is to be thrown by someone who is without sin. Jesus kneels again and recommences his doodling in the dust. He has found a way of enabling everyone to acknowledge their guilt, and abandon their judgemental attitude. Fixing his gaze on the ground, he spares their embarrassment, as the crowd melts away, the oldest first, in accordance with tradition.
Jesus is now alone with the woman, who stands there waiting. So far she has not spoken a word. As St Augustine puts it: 'two are left, the woman and mercy incarnate.' (Relicti sunt duo: mulier et misericordia.) Jesus, with his questions: Where are they? Has no one condemned you? establishes a relationship with her. She is a person again, with an identity and a dignity. He addresses her with gentleness, respect, understanding and compassion. She replies with quiet reverence: No one, sir. But he is also true to the reality of the situation, and does not condone what she has done. He has rescued her from the different forms of death threatening her. He assures her that he does not condemn her. He offers her the possibility of conversion, a fresh start, encouraging her to change her way of life: Go away and sin no more. His acceptance and compassion make this transformation possible.
On this fifth Sunday of Lent, we can imagine ourselves standing before Jesus. We are aware that he knows our story, knows our shadows, knows what drains our life-energy, knows the areas in which we are only half alive, knows what holds us bound. Our fragility and sinfulness is open before him. We can gaze at him as he kneels before us, writing in the sand, the one who has come to take away our sin, to remove our darkness, to set us free, to bring us life, phrases used elsewhere in John's Gospel. And he straightens up, looks us in the eye, and says: 'Michael, I don't condemn you. Go your way, you are forgiven. From now on, sin no more.' The possibility of a new future opens before us too.
The scribes and Pharisees who appear in the story are not strangers to us. Frequently we encounter people who are manipulative, insincere, self-satisfied, negative, judgemental, destructive. There are folk who seem to relish the possibility of stone-throwing, some who are quite adept at the sport. This is our world, our Church. Our media flourishes on it all. We may recognize some of these tendencies in our own hearts and lives too. Jesus' words give us cause to stop in our tracks, to think and take stock. In Matthew he refers with amusement to our human aptitude for noticing a speck in the eye of our neighbour, and failing to observe a log in our own. The metanoia and conversion to which Lent invites us, must touch us here. Jesus doesn't ask us to deny that others, like ourselves, make mistakes. He does deny us the right to judge them, to destroy their name and character, to throw stones. Maybe we should pause more frequently, doodle in the dust, ponder and welcome a fresh perspective on people and on life.