Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
While throwing stones may be fun at the beach, the same activity undertaken with a human target is far less amusing. We hear in the Gospel this weekend about a woman who has been caught in the act of adultery and the scribes and Pharisees who are ready to inflict the punishment prescribed by law for this sin. This situation is no joke, but rather a literal matter of life and death. The serious nature of the charge, the punishment, the impact of the sin – all laid before Jesus who understands the import of the moment.
At first, it may seem strange that Jesus bends down and begins to write on the ground with his finger. Compared to other situations brought to Jesus, this is an abnormal response. In ordinary circumstances, Jesus says something almost immediately, gives an instruction, poses a question, offers some healing. But here He pauses, takes a physical posture markedly different from both the woman and her accusers, and it is only in response to repeated questions from the Pharisees that he speaks. Pay attention to His posture, first. The woman has been made to stand in the middle, surrounded by accusers who also stand. Jesus bends to the ground, touching the ground with his finger. The effect is two-fold. Jesus, God-Incarnate, writes in the dust, just as God formed man from the dust of the earth, and thus Jesus’ posture symbolizes His authority and power as creator and sole judge. On a human level, the woman made to stand in the middle is able to look down on Jesus, who by lowering Himself, has been removed from the circle of accusers. Just so does Jesus lower Himself for all of us – He enters our human condition, not to accuse us of sin, of betraying the purpose for which God created us from dust, but rather that we might stand, even in our sinfulness, and have hope of mercy.
As the Pharisees question Him, our Lord waits patiently. His words, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” does two things. First, it reminds the Pharisees that, for all their good intentions and knowledge, they are sinners. Second, it confirms for the woman that she is also guilty of sin. The penalty for the sin of adultery according to the Mosaic law is stoning, and Jesus allows that penalty, provided a sinless person is able to throw a stone. No one in this story (except Jesus) is innocent. As the accusers walk away, Jesus makes another change to His physical posture.
Now alone with the accused woman, Jesus stands. Whereas He had lowered Himself as a sign that He was not an accuser, now He stands to look the woman in the eye. Our Lord, the only one with the right to throw a stone, looks her in the eye to ask if she has been condemned. Then, showing His mastery of and authority over the law, Jesus refuses to condemn her and sends her away with a command: “Go, and sin no more.” In those words and actions, we see our own reflection. We are all the woman caught in adultery, we are all the Pharisees and scribes. We see the faults of others and we see the faults that are present in our own hearts and lives. Jesus sees and knows them also. The Lenten season in a special way is an invitation to reflect on our tendency to judge and condemn others, as well as our tendency to judge and condemn ourselves. The Lord wants to look you and me in the eye and speak to our hearts those powerful words “Neither do I condemn you.” Fortunately for us, Jesus has provided us with the opportunity to hear that sentiment in the Sacrament of Confession. By confessing our sins, we receive the great mercy of God. Fortunately, that mercy comes with an accompanying command “Go, and sin no more.” We know that if we continue in sinful behaviors, patterns, habits, or mentalities, we will bring condemnation and pain on ourselves and those around us. We need to change. As this holy season draws to a close, let us recognize our need to look Jesus in the eye, to stand before Him in humility and humiliation, and to hear both words of merciful love and words of command challenging us to virtue.