Gospel Lectio Divina for 5th Sunday of Lent
Come Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful and kindle in them the fire of your love. Send forth your Spirit and they shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth.
O, God, who by the light of the Holy Spirit, did instruct the hearts of the faithful, grant that by the same Holy Spirit we may be truly wise and ever enjoy His consolations, Through Christ Our Lord, Amen.
Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area,
and all the people started coming to him,
and he sat down and taught them.
Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman
who had been caught in adultery
and made her stand in the middle.
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.
So what do you say?”
They said this to test him,
so that they could have some charge to bring against him.
Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.
But when they continued asking him,
he straightened up and said to them,
“Let the one among you who is without sin
be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Again he bent down and wrote on the ground.
And in response, they went away one by one,
beginning with the elders.
So he was left alone with the woman before him.
Then Jesus straightened up and said to her,
“Woman, where are they?
Has no one condemned you?”
She replied, “No one, sir.”
Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.
Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
he sat down and taught them.
People longed for Jesus’ teaching because he spoke truth with authority, a style of teaching they didn’t commonly hear.
They said this to test him
The hearts of the Pharisees are truly revealed in this passage. They care very little for the fate of the woman, and are fixated upon making Jesus look like a bad teacher. They are so determined to do this, in fact, that they are willing to put the woman’s life at risk, just to try and prove that Jesus is not as wise as people think he is. The pride of the Pharisees exceeds any compassion, holiness, piety, knowledge of the law, or wisdom they may have.
“Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Jesus doesn’t bypass the law, but rather fulfills it by highlighting its true intent. The Pharisees had become so caught up in the sins of others that they forgot their own sins. Jesus teaches this lesson elsewhere, when he says, “remove the plank from your own eye, then you will see clearly to remove the speck in your brother’s eye” (Matthew 7:5). In both these lessons, Jesus is not disregarding the sin of the woman or the brother. However, hypocrisy and judgmentalism had become so bad by Jesus’ time that people were using the law of God to cover up their own sins by emphasizing those of others. Jesus saw this as a serious problem, so his teachings bring the problem to light.
And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders
A common interpretation of this verse suggests that the elders left first because they had the most sins on their hearts and souls, since they had lived the longest. If Jesus wrote the sins of the Pharisees in the sand, singling out each of them, that common interpretation could be true. But another interpretation is possible. The elders were likely the oldest, but they were also the leaders of the Pharisees. Now we could believe that since they were the leaders of such a hypocritical group, that their sins were the greatest. But what if they left first because they were the humblest and wisest? What if they were the first to recognize the truth and justice in what Jesus was saying? The elderly are not given enough credit for their wisdom and experience. The benefits of youth are often preferred over the benefits of old age. But, for just this once, let’s give credit to the elders for being the first to drop their stones and take Jesus’ advice, instead of criticizing them for condemning the woman in the first place, and instead of assuming that their sins were the greatest. Perhaps in their wisdom and experience, they recognized that Jesus was right. In their humility, they noticed they’re in no position to stone this woman, because–in truth–they have greatly offended God just as well. This interaction may have even been the beginning of their conversion. In noticing the truth in Jesus’ words, their hearts may have begun to soften as their own sins became more of a reality to them. That is perhaps the greatest benefit of old age, when the vigor of youth begins to fade, we begin to see reality more clearly. We begin to see how mortal we are.
“Neither do I condemn you.”
But shouldn’t she receive some kind of punishment for committing adultery? At the pinnacle of Christ’s teaching is God’s mercy. We can’t pay the debt we owe. Our only hope is to rely on God’s mercy. Jesus wants the woman to go forth in love of God, so he gives her a reason. The mercy she was shown probably did much more good than any condemnation would have done.
But there is a problem. The sin she committed remains unsettled. If Jesus did not condemn her, was it okay that she did it? Jesus took her sin upon himself, and in time carried it with him to Calvary. She was not condemned, but her sin was condemned. It was condemned when Jesus was nailed to the cross. Jesus said “Neither do I condemn you” because he would be the one condemned to death in her stead.
“Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
This is an essential part of any confession. The one confessing has to vow to sin no more. One time in confession a priest told me that this part didn’t matter because I’m obviously going to sin again–so there was no point in even saying “I firmly resolve to sin no more” in my act of contrition. But that resolution is a condition of my forgiveness. If I do not vow to sin no more, I am not forgiven. If I break that vow, I need to go to confession again. Then God’s mercy will prevail, but I have to make an effort. There is no demonstration of love without my commitment to never hurt God again. My apology is empty if I do not vow to sin no more. That would be like punching my brother and saying I’m sorry, then punching him again. What value do the words “I’m sorry” have if we just do the same thing afterwards? Not only does that hurt the one we are offending. It also gives less value to our words.
Jesus’ command at the end of this passage is a firm reminder that God’s mercy is an element of a loving relationship. We do not betray those we love. If we do, God will forego his mercy and administer his justice instead. The connection between mercy and justice is a transcendent mystery, but we catch a glimpse of it here. God is the God of mercy, but he is also the God of justice. Psalm 145 says, “The LORD is gracious and merciful … the LORD is just in all his ways”. That is not a contradiction. If we squander God’s mercy–that is, if we do not vow to sin no more after receiving God’s mercy–we will experience God’s justice. Both mercy and justice are within God’s range of omnipotence. Both transcendentals are holy and perfect. The one is not any less an attribute of God than the other. He governs the entire universe with justice. He shows humanity special favor, and that is why he shows us mercy. He loves us with an exclusive love that’s different than the love he has for the rest of creation. We are his beloved, and that is why he sent his son to die for us; because it is just to show mercy to the ones who love us.
Thank you for your mercy, which never ceases to amaze me. I can marvel over it every day and still only skim the service of its depths. Forgive me for my sins and bring me back. As the prodigal son said, I am no longer worthy of being called your son. I do not expect your forgiveness, but beg you to simply welcome me back. Help me to remember the love we share. Your love for me is unique. The love you want me to show the world is also unique. This is why you created me. This is why you created us all: to share the many unique aspects of your love with the world. When sin gets in the way, it hinders this mission. Remind me of my mission. Cleanse me of my sins, and with your grace help me to sin no more. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
Jesus’ words to the woman caught in adultery were words of healing. This is what Jesus offers us. Let’s not be afraid to go to him with our sins, because his response will be a healing balm that will enable us to continue in our mission of love. We need to go back to the source of love in order to prevail in loving others. If we stay away from God for fear of condemnation, we stay away from that source. Come to Jesus, and listen to him say, “I do not condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
Kilby is a freelance writer from New Jersey and managing editor of Catholic World Report.