Abbey 2013 Fifth Sunday of Lent – C
The Gospel from John we have just heard is often titled “The Woman Caught in Adultery.” At first hearing we might nod our heads in agreement. But really the Gospel is not about the sexual behavior of the woman. It probably received its common title because we might be sensitive or maybe overly sensitive to sexual exploits. And so that word adultery lights up in brilliant colors for us. But the key phrase in the gospel is not adultery but that the scribes and Pharisees wanted to test Jesus and to find a charge against him. The woman is merely a pawn in the machinations of local leaders. There is not much concern for the woman; the concern is Jesus and what he’ll make of this situation. It is a trap. That a woman is caught between men’s games is nothing new, sad to say.
The story is part of the collection of conflict stories that we find in all the gospels. Religious leaders question Jesus or give him questions and situations to test him. These conflicts often take place in the temple where Jesus is teaching. These conflicts increase the longer Jesus stays in Jerusalem. So too here. Jesus is really the one on trial. His judgment is being put to the test. If Jesus’ says yes, stone her. He is usurping the death penalty which is not for him to administer. He could be considered a revolutionary disturbing Roman rule. If he says she should not be stoned, he contradicts the Mosaic Law and the long standing tradition. He’ll also be considered a hypocrite in front of the people who regard him favorably. He is contradicting is own message of mercy and compassion, indeed, of not judging.
There is something strange in the story we have. In the Mosaic law both of those caught in adultery should be stoned to death, both the male and the female. But where is the woman’s male partner? Nowhere to be seen. Perhaps. But the stones at hand are enough for two. So who is the second? Perhaps Jesus is the male for whom the stones are intended. John’s Gospel has made it clear that leaders picked up stones more than once to throw at him. His crime, making himself equal to God, calling God his Father making him Son. Jesus’ act of adultery is bringing the human and divine into contact with one another in an unheard of way. The deeply intimate relationship of Jesus and his Father—that is Jesus’ crime of adultery.
So how does Jesus answer. He keeps silent and bends over and starts writing on the ground. People have been asking what he is writing. What do you write on a notepad or a blank page when you are bored or when someone is talking on the phone?..talking talking…you doodle, you scribble. So Jesus scribbles while the leaders talk and talk, pushing him up against a wall….we doodle so we have time to think, to let another’s words run dry. There are lots of words in legal books but what is really needed is the ability to read hearts, human hearts. When their words have run out and the silence needed for the right word has matured, then Js stands up and speaks. So Jesus has found the right words: “Let anyone among you without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Instead of watching Jesus doodle away in the sand in the temple courtyard, read what is written in the secret of your own heart. Then Jesus goes down to doodle again…and slowly as each one begins to read what is in their heart, they start to walk away. The eldest first…no doubt they have a long list of things they know and others too-their infidelities piled up over the years. Soon enough everyone who wanted to cast a stone either at the woman or Jesus, the two adulterers, has left. Then Jesus stands up and speaks in human terms to the woman. Jesus merely asks where the accusers are. They’ve gone. They offer no act of condemnation. If he throws a stone at all, it is one of mercy. He offers no judgment. He spends no time rehearsing the woman’s past. He shows concern only for her future. His judgment is a freedom for what is to come: “Go your way and from now on sin no more.” No moralizing lecture; just a command rising from a heart of mercy and compassion. Just a word that allows a new thing to happen for this woman. It was a critical moment for both of them. It appeared they were on trial. But it became a critical moment for their accusers when they realized that they too had something to be ashamed of. Words fell silent. And in that silence mercy blossomed. In the silence and doodling a new thing could come about.
The word “sin” in the Greek originally meant to miss the mark, to come short of the standard expected. Not to sin would mean to set one’s sight on the target and goal again and keep focused on it. Don’t miss the goal. Don’t miss your dignity or your hope. The woman had missed the mark, lost sight of the goal. Now she was free to set out again on her life focused in the right direction, following the way laid out by her God. In Jesus God had put something new in front of her, gave her back her dignity and told her to go, go forward from here.
All three readings today put in front of us God doing something “new”. Isaiah makes it clear that for Israel at the time of her exile in Babylon, the new thing was like the old thing, the Exodus, the passage out of slavery through the water of the Red Sea. But God would now make that wonder not something in the past but rather open up a way into the future. Once it was a way through the waters of the Sea, now it will be a way through the desert back home to Sion. God’s wonders are not in the past alone; past wonders point to a future new way. The community must believe that their God is their future not just their past. The community must believe that the shame of the past will not inhibit God from working with them into a new an unimaginable future.
It is Paul today who gives us a glimpse of what happened to him when he encountered Christ. A whole new way is opened up for him. The past was great he says. But I have met Christ and now the past is rubbish in comparison to meeting him. I now journey with him but it not always easy; it involves his cross. But it is only in that cross that I can move forward. It is the Christian paradox: only in Christ’s shame, his condemnation can I move forward.
I am running a race says Paul and I have not yet won. I’ve not arrived-but when I do then the resurrection will capture me completely. What is new for Paul is not that he has found Christ but that Christ has possessed him and now there is nothing more he can do but run until that possession unfolds into resurrection. God opened the way for Israel through the desert, causing water to spring up; Christ possessed Paul and now he runs towards his goal. Jesus transformed a woman’s shame into an opportunity for her to move forward toward her proper goal. She met Jesus in a moment of shame and he changed it to an opportunity for honor.
And today if these readings recall anything, they remind us that God is not finished with his people of old, his Church today or with you and me. Lent is not about lamenting the past; there is no beating the breast in the Word today. There is only the wonder of God acting again, setting us toward our goal, a goal that Paul says is always upwards toward Christ Jesus in his fullness.