Home Homilies Michael Whelan SM, PhD Gospel for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (13 March 2016)

Gospel for the Fifth Sunday in Lent (13 March 2016)

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he 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.” (John 8:1-11 – NRSV)

Introductory notes

1. There has been considerable debate as to the origins of this account of the woman caught in adultery. (The RSV puts it in a footnote and the NIV puts in italics.)

a. It seems highly unlikely that this account belongs to John:

i. “For sound textual reasons it is universally admitted that the account of Jesus and the woman taken in adultery (7:53–8:11) does not belong to the Fourth Gospel (cf. Brown, Gospel 1:332–338; Barrett, Gospel 589; Pickering, “John 7:53–8:11” 6–7)” (F Moloney, SDB, The Gospel of John, The Liturgical Press, 1998, 259.)
ii. “All the early church Fathers omit this narrative: in commenting on John, they pass immediately from 7:52 to 8:12. ….” (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 334.)

b. There are elements of the account that prompt some scholars to suggest it may actually belong with Luke: “Several expressions in this verse are typical of Luke-Acts (or in one case of Matthew as well): orthos (‘dawn’) is found in the New Testament elsewhere only in Luke 24:1; Acts 5:21; paraginomai (‘appear’) and laos (‘people’) are common in Luke-Acts, rare in John; and for he sat down to teach them cf. Matthew 5:1–2; Luke 4:20; 5:3. The content of this verse is closely paralleled by Luke 21:38, again referring to the week of Jesus’ passion: ‘and all the people came early in the morning to hear him at the temple’.” (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 334.)

c. Whether it is Johannine or not, there is “scholarly unanimity that 7:53–8:11 is an addition to an already completed narrative”. (F Moloney, op cit, 263.)

d. “On the other hand, there is little reason for doubting that the event here described occurred, even if in its written form it did not in the beginning belong to the canonical books. Similar stories are found in other sources. One of the best known, reported by Papias (and recorded by the historian Eusebius, H.E. III. xxxix. 16), is the account of a woman, accused in the Lord’s presence of many sins (unlike the woman here who is accused of but one). The narrative before us also has a number of parallels (some of them noted below) with stories in the Synoptic Gospels. The reason for its insertion here may have been to illustrate 7:24 and 8:15 or, conceivably, the Jews’ sinfulness over against Jesus’ sinlessness (8:21, 24, 46).” (D A Carson, op cit, 333-34.)

e. Another reason for the inclusion of this account might be that it demonstrates in a very concrete case the transition from the Law of Torah to the Law of Christ. The disciples are to look to Jesus who is the Christ, not to Torah, for their way of living the Covenant.

2. Early in the morning he came again to the temple: It was common practice for scribes to meet with their students in the outer court of the temple. Being a public place, people could join one or other group. Clearly some scribes have joined the disciples – and others – to listen to Jesus. Their interest is not idle curiosity. They want to test Jesus and trip him up. The text becomes explicit about the motivation of the scribes and the Pharisees: “They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him”.

a. “The teachers of the law (lit. ‘scribes’) and the Pharisees are often mentioned together in the Synoptics, but never in the genuine text of John. The scribes were the recognized students and expositors of the law of Moses, but so central was the law in the life and thought of first-century Palestinian Jews that the scribes came to assume something of the roles of lawyer, ethicist, theologian, catechist, and jurist. Most of them, but certainly not all, were Pharisees by conviction (cf. notes on 1:19ff.).” (D A Carson, op cit, 334.)

3. (The scribes and the Pharisees) brought a woman who had been caught in adultery: The reader cannot pass over this detail without wondering about it. Where is the man? A moment’s reflection raises the ugly possibility that this is actually not a point of law at issue but a very pointed attempt to trap Jesus. The woman is being used as a pawn. Our compassion for the woman is aroused along with our disgust for the “scribes and Pharisees”.

a. The woman is made to “stand before all of them”. The unfolding drama revolves around her silent – and presumably disheveled – presence. Because of the other presence – the presence of Jesus – her presence becomes an eloquent exposition of a new way of being and as such a condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees.

4. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women: In fact Torah is not quite as straightforward in this matter as the scribes and Pharisees are implying:

a. Deuteronomy 22:23-24 is probably the law being invoked: “If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.”

b. Leviticus 20:10 prescribes something similar though it makes no mention of stoning: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death”.

5. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground: This is a tantalizing and enigmatic sentence. “The truth is that we do not know” what it means. (Cf D A Crason, op cit, 336.)

a. However, the text and the structure of the story do allow us to ask a question: What would such a gesture have meant to the scribes and the Pharisees? At the very least it suggests to the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus is not going to begin to debate the point and fall into their trap. However it is to be interpreted, it has the effect of turning this story in a new direction. In this simple gesture, Jesus takes away the power of the scribes and Pharisees. He is in charge from this moment.

6. they kept on questioning him: The scribes and the Pharisees do not immediately grasp the fact that they have been defeated.

7. he straightened up: Like the gesture of writing on the ground, it seems significant that the Gospel records this detail. Is it of no significance? It seems reasonable to suggest that this movement – accompanied by eye contact – is a deliberate and unmistakable re-engagement with the people who have lined up against him as his adversaries. “You don’t get it? Alright, “let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”.

a. Jesus may be recalling Torah again here. In Leviticus 24:1-16 it is prescribed that the witnesses to the crime must begin the process of carrying out the execution: “Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands on his head, and let the whole congregation stone him”. See also Deuteronomy 13:9 and 17:7.

b. Jesus exposes the double standard at work here: The men bring in the woman caught in the act of adultery but not the man – presumably he was present at the scene of the crime! Maybe he is in the crowd now?

c. “Many manuscripts specifically say that the accusers were ‘convicted by their own conscience’ (AV), but their stunned departure testifies as much. Those who had come to shame Jesus now leave in shame.” ( D A Carson, op cit, 336.)

8. once again he bent down and wrote on the ground: Here is the third of the enigmatic gestures – he bent down and began writing, he straightened up, he bent down and began writing again. In other words “If you did not get it the first time, I’ll do it again!”

a. These gestures suggest Jesus does not fear his adversaries. He gives them no quarter. Yet he must know that they are plotting against him and that they are capable of doing him harm.

b. Jesus not only holds the power in this jousting match, he is also making it clear that he has authority to do something new. In particular, he has the authority of God to forgive sin – see also Matthew 9:1-8.

i. Jesus’ authority to teach and forgive sins is clearly an issue for the religious leaders here and throughout the Gospels. In John it emerges with frequent references to “the Jews” in a pejorative way. We see it also in the synoptics. For example: Mark 2:1-12 (the cure of the paralytic and the forgiveness of his sins); Mark 6:1-6 (Jesus returns to his home town where the local people question his authority); Mark 11:27-33 (the chief priests, the scribes and the elders confront Jesus in the temple); Luke 4:32 (they were amazed at his teaching because he spoke with authority – see also Matthew 7:29); Mark 2:23-3:6 (the disciples picking corn on the Sabbath and the cure of the man with the withered hand – also Luke 6:1-11 & Matthew 12:1-14).

ii. Jesus’ authority is the source of the community’s authority after Jesus has gone – see for example John 20:22-23

9. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.”: Here is the fourth of those enigmatic gestures – “he straightened up”. These gestures move the drama from a focus on law to a focus on grace, from threat to promise:

a. Under the law, represented by the scribes and Pharisees, there is threat for both the woman and for Jesus;

b. Under grace, represented by Jesus Christ, there is promise, giving context for a more expansive and nuanced human response.


Every human society is an invention. The customs, laws, rules, social structures and institutions by which and within which we live, are developed and maintained by us. The sociologist, Peter Berger, reminds us that “every socially defined ‘nomos’ (order) is an area of meaning carved out of a vast mass of meaninglessness”. (Peter Berger, The Sociocultural Reality of Religion, Faber & Faber, 1969, 24.) (In our Christian Tradition we believe that there are elements of our life together as Church that are not invented by us. Discerning those that are invented and those that are of divine origin is a complex matter, beyond the scope of this little reflection.)

Our sanity depends on our ability to ‘carve out’ a credible ‘order’ and maintain our belief in that ‘order’. The ‘vast area of meaninglessness’ – utterly overwhelming if we do not develop and maintain this ‘order’ – is a manifestation of the inexhaustible intelligibility of existence. The fact that we experience it as ‘meaninglessness’ does not mean it is in fact ‘meaningless’. The realm beyond our human ordering of reality – our ‘socially defined ‘nomos’’ – defies any and all attempts to control it with definitions and names.

Our human order and the ‘vast area of meaninglessness’ both belong to God. All is relative to God and finds its meaning and purpose in God. The temptation is to absolutize the human order, turn it into an end in itself disconnected from the divine order. When we absolutize the relative, we relativize the Absolute. That is the way of despair.

Where do you find your identity, energy and purpose? What ultimately grounds your life and governs your values and your most significant decisions?

Jesus exposes those tending to absolutize a relative order. And we should not forget that this tendency is a besetting sin for the conscientiously religious people of any religious tradition anywhere, any time. And it is potentially all the more destructive because they believe they have God on their side.

Jesus enables us to live in the tension of being thoroughly immersed in and committed to the human order at the same time as we are thoroughly immersed in and committed to the Absolute divine order. For the Christian, the Absolute is not an ‘It’ but a ‘Thou’.

Imagine the moment when all the woman’s accusers have gone and she is alone with Jesus. ‘He straightens up’, looks around then turns to her and says: ‘Where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ How does she experience this moment? What is she thinking? What is she feeling? And what of the onlookers who remain?

Jesus love and mercy is a threat to the religious authorities. On the other hand, his love and mercy are full of promise for the woman. Her broken world is being healed. She is being set free.

You say I am repeating
Something I have said before. I shall say it again.
Shall I say it again? In order to arrive there,
To arrive where you are, to get from where you are not,
You must go by a way wherein there is no ecstasy.
In order to arrive at what you do not know
You must go by a way which is the way of ignorance.
In order to possess what you do not possess
You must go by the way of dispossession.
In order to arrive at what you are not
You must go through the way in which you are not.
And what you do not know is the only thing you know
And what you own is what you do not own
And where you are is where you are not. *

* T S Eliot, ‘East Coker,’ III, in T S Eliot Four Quartets, A Harvest/HBJ Book, 1943/1971, 28-29.