This is the gospel about the woman who had been caught in adultery. Enemies of Jesus bring her to him at daybreak while he is teaching people in the temple area. They make her stand there humiliated in public. In an attempt to trap him into opposing either Mosaic Law or Roman Law, they ask Jesus whether he judges that she should be stoned. After Jesus exposes their malice, the woman’s accusers are afraid to condemn her. Beginning with the elders, they all go away. Then Jesus says to the woman: “Neither do I condemn you. Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more.”
The story about Jesus and the woman caught in adultery happily became part of Holy Scripture, inserted as it was in the fourth gospel. Some early manuscripts have the story placed after Luke 21:38 where it says that people came at daybreak to listen to Jesus as he taught in the temple area. The story fits very well in the fourth gospel because it illustrates some of its most basic themes–truth, judgment, blindness, sight, darkness, light, death, life, sin, creation.
In Jesus’ time it was important to determine the arrival of daybreak when the first offerings were to be made in the temple. A rabbi asked his students what criterion might be used to determine that the night had ended. One student said the night had ended when there was enough light to tell a goat from a sheep. Another said when you could distinguish an apple tree from a fig tree. The rabbi gave this answer: “A new day has arrived when you can look at a human face, and see a brother or a sister. If you are unable to see a brother or a sister in every human face, you are still in the darkness of night.”
Though morning had come, for the woman’s accusers it is still night. They cannot see that it is their brother and their sister who have committed the sin. They have humiliated the more vulnerable partner of the adultery by making her stand alone in the public temple area. This echoes the malice of the elders who ordered the veil to be removed from the woman Susanna after accusing her of adultery (Dan 13:32).
Moreover, in their darkness, the woman’s accusers are unable to see that Jesus is also their brother, sent by God to bring them into the light. They have violated the God-given dignity of the woman by reducing her to the status of an object. They attempt to use her as a means to advance their own interests by laying a trap for Jesus in order to have a charge to bring against him. The malice of their action is compounded by the fact that they are seeking to destroy Jesus under the guise of honoring the divine law given to Moses. This surely is taking the name of God in vain (Ex 20:7).
We can identify with any of the actors of the drama. Regrettably we can easily identify with the woman’s accusers. We too take the name of God in vain when, under the guise of defending some orthodox doctrine or practice, we engage in destructive, personal attacks upon those who differ with us. The woman caught in adultery? We can all identify with her, in need of forgiveness-—often fallen from the pure joy of living in harmony with God’s truth and love. “What is our innocence, what is our guilt? All are naked, none is safe” (Marianne Moore).
Most important of all, because we share the gift of his Spirit, we can be like Jesus in his act of true judgment and creative love. Forgiveness is true judgment and creative love. We say, for example, that a friendship has ended because some infidelity has destroyed it. The friendship can come into being again through forgiveness, creative love given and received. Jesus re-creates the woman into her beauty as divine image through his forgiveness. He tells her the good news that she is free to walk away from the mess she is in and begin a new life: “Go, [and] from now on do not sin any more.”
Campion P. Gavaler, O.S.B.