(Begin by reading the Gospel. Sometimes it is good to have someone read it to you. The Word is meant to be heard.)
We know that sin makes us miserable. Sins are the choices we make—some that we make over and over again—that push us further away from each other and make us feel so distant from God. We do not seem able to change the situation. We do not seem able to help ourselves. In the Gospel for this Sunday, we see the misery of sin on display.
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.
It is important to note that this Gospel reading takes place at the Temple. We know that the Temple is the most holy place in Jerusalem. It is the centre of worship for the Jewish people. Here they celebrate covenant relationship with God. Here Jesus sits down to teach and people gather around him. Together, they explore covenant relationship with God.
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.
If a married person has a sexual relationship with someone outside of their marriage, this is called adultery. Adultery is an adult sin. It is not a sin children have to worry about committing. However, adultery is a sin that hurts many people, including children. Family relationships are damaged and pulled apart. God seems very distant. Everyone is miserable.
The scribes and Pharisees bring the woman to the Temple and place her sin on display before all the people. We can imagine that she is miserable. It is possible that not one, but two families are hurt by her sin—both hers and the man's. She knows this, and now so does everyone in the Temple. She is alone in front of all these people accusing her. When people accuse us and embarrass us, sometimes we do not feel at all sorry for what we have done, but sorry for ourselves instead. The woman might feel like this. It is possible that she starts to feel angry and defiant. Where is the man she was with? Why is he not being accused, too? It is almost certain that she is terrified. She may be about to die for her sin.
The scribes and Pharisees say to Jesus,
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.
It is written that adultery is punishable by death. Stoning someone means to throw stones at them until they die. Awful. The scribes and Pharisees know it is awful. They know Jesus knows it is awful. The woman knows it is awful and she is miserable because of it. But no one seems interested about what she feels. For the scribes and Pharisees, this is not really about her. They are saying these things to test Jesus.
The Law, after all, is the gift of God to the Jewish people. It is part of the covenant between them and God. Will Jesus say the Law is wrong? The scribes and Pharisees almost seem to be daring Jesus to say it.
Will Jesus, then, tell them to stone her? If he does, everyone would see that this great Teacher, this one who proclaims the Kingdom of God, is full of vengeance. How would anyone be able to love and follow him after that? The scribes and Pharisees hold their breath, just waiting for Jesus to speak.
Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.
Jesus, however, says nothing.
Jesus is not about to get involved in a debate about the Law. Debates about the Law are natural and good, actually. They are a normal part of living the covenant with God. Elders gather in the Temple every day to ask questions and listen to each other's answers about the Law. We know Jesus did this with them when he was twelve. Asking questions and listening to answers is a good way to draw near to the mystery of God. Jesus is not about to enter a debate now, though. Not with people who are obviously uninterested in drawing near to the mystery. Not while a sinner stands angry, defiant, embarrassed, terrified—miserable before him.
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 Jesus speaks, he diffuses the situation. It is like he lets air out of a balloon, or takes a boiling kettle off the stove. All the pushy, demanding questions die away. What has Jesus done? He has created some space—breathing room. He has made everyone stop, take a breath, and think for a moment about themselves—how they appear to others, and more importantly, how they are seen by God.
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.
What else has Jesus done?
Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they?
He has entered her space. Do we realize this is the first time anyone has spoken to her?? Jesus has entered into her misery—the misery of her sinfulness.
She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.
Jesus enters her misery and meets it with mercy.
This is what he does all the time, is it not? He enters into the misery of our sin and meets it with mercy. He does this all the way to the cross. He dies into our misery. And the mercy of God—stronger than sin, stronger than death—raises him to new life, life in which there is no separation from God.
And he offers this to us. The word for mercy in Latin is misericordia. It comes from the word miser, meaning misery, and the word cor, meaning heart. Jesus takes our misery, our sin, right into his heart. He knows we cannot change the situation. He knows we cannot help ourselves. He knows our sin and he offers us, instead, the mercy of God.