Joy of the Gospel

Comment on the Gospel of the Fifth Sunday of Lent Year C

By Fr. Dumisani Vilakati of Manzini, Eswatini

John 8: 1-11

The gospel presents a story of the depths of God’s mercy as Jesus saves a woman from death.

As to geographic setting we are in Jerusalem, in the Temple area. The characters include Jesus, the woman caught in adultery, the scribes and Pharisees. We can only imagine that Jesus’ disciples and the people remain interested spectators in the background as the story unfolds.

The accused woman is not the intended target as such. The evangelist makes it clear that the accusation is a ploy to accuse Jesus of something. The woman is being abused so as to achieve evil ends. At this stage we do well to think of the many women who continue being abused so that the powerful may achieve certain political and or economic privileges.

The accusation puts Jesus between the proverbial rock and a hard place. The Greco-Roman culture had brought a certain permissive sexual behaviour even among the Jews. This would have been frowned upon by the more religious and culturally sensitive Jews who advocated for a return to a strict moral code in accordance with the Law of Moses. A response against this invasive foreign culture would have put Jesus at odds with the supporters of the Greco-Roman culture. On the other hand, agreeing with this foreign permissive sexual behaviour would have undermined Jesus’ authority within some Jewish circles.

Jesus prefers to keep quiet as the accusation is laid against the woman. The scribes and Pharisees were correct that a person caught in adultery had to be put to death (cf. Lev.20:10; Dt. 20:22-23). It is curious though that the accusers did not bring the other party to the adultery, the man, as demanded by the Law of Moses. According to both Leviticus and Deuteronomy, both the man and the woman had to be put to death. We can thus conclude that they were compromised and partial judges rendering them incapable of administering true justice.

The passage is interesting as this is the only place in the Bible where Jesus is said to have written something even though this writing was blown away by the wind. When Jesus stand upright he simply responds with the words: “Let the one without sin among you cast the first stone”. Witnesses to a crime were supposed to be the first to cast a stone (Dt. 17:7). The accusers depart meaning that they were not even certain of the accusation. Anyone who accuses falsely had to be dealt with harshly. Dt. 19:18-19 speaks to this as follows: “The judges shall inquire diligently, and if the witness is a false witness and has accused his brother falsely, then you shall do to him as he had meant to do to his brother. So you shall purge the evil from your midst”. The Law also specified that the punishment of a false witness was to be carried out without pity (cf. Dt. 19:21); it is a serious thing in God’s eyes to make a false accusation.

The reasons for this sudden departure are not spelt out. The attentive reader of John’s gospel though already knows that Jesus, being the Word made Flesh, knows everything. He would have known that the accusers were guilty of a lot more. This story is, no doubt, a re-telling of the story of Daniel (Dan 13) who judged wisely as Susanna was accused of adultery. Daniel was capable of knowing the mysteries of life and revealing them to the simple. Daniel’s name in fact means the judgement of God. Jesus too, is capable of knowing the mysteries of life and delivers God’s judgement.

Another point that may be considered, given that the event takes place in the Temple area, is the very reason for the existence of the Temple. It was an area for experiencing God’s mercy and forgiveness. Sacrifices were carried out daily in the Temple for the forgiveness of sins. Yet, the Pharisees and the scribes are not even considering this possibility of requesting divine justice for the woman.

The last words of Jesus invite the woman to go and not choose to sin again. Each one of us, learning from the woman and listening to Jesus must make a choice of not sinning again. We depend on God for everything. We know that every now and then we fall unto sin. For this reason we dare to pray at every mass: “Deliver us Lord from every evil”. As we go through this Lenten season, we do well to start afresh and lead a proper Christian life.