Gospel of the 5th Sunday of Lent
1 Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 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. 3 Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. 4 They said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” 6 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. 7 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.” 8 Again He bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So He was left alone with the woman before Him. 10 Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11She replied, “No one, Sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more” (Jn 8:1-11).
I – Doing Good by Combatting Evil
Sacred Revelation transmits to us the surprising richness of Our Lord’s mercy in numerous passages of the New Testament. In the Gospel of this 5th Sunday of Lent, however, forgiveness seems to reach its zenith in the account of the woman caught in adultery.
The scene takes place in the context of Jesus’ journey to Jerusalem on the Feast of Tabernacles. Initially, the Divine Master, urged by His relatives, refused to go up with them to the Holy City, because His hour had not yet come (cf. Jn 7:2-9). Nevertheless, the expectation of His eventual presence in the immediate vicinity of the Temple was very high, as the Evangelist himself witnesses: “The Jews were looking for Him at the feast, and saying, ‘Where is He?’ And there was much muttering about Him among the people. While some said, ‘He is a good man,’ others said, ‘No, He is leading the people astray’” (Jn 7:11-12).
Jerusalem, crowded with pilgrims from the diaspora, is divided over Jesus of Nazareth. The elites and a portion of the people have taken a dislike to the true Messiah and denigrate Him, while a sanior pars, probably the majority, gladly listen to Him.
Into the fray
Within this climate of tension and danger, Our Lord makes an impromptu appearance in Jerusalem, in the midst of the festivities that have been going on for some days. He amazes the crowds with His teachings and neutralizes the objectors. Such is the radiance of His majestic goodness that the priests’ guards, charged by their leaders with arresting Him, return wonderstruck and empty-handed. Questioned about the failure of the enterprise, they reply only: “No man ever spoke like this Man!” (Jn 7:46). The trap had become a glorious victory of the Truth over hypocrisy!
It does not seem unrealistic to think that the Pharisees and the scribes, infuriated at seeing Jesus escape from their clutches, fabricated the adulteress’ affair in order to compromise and discredit Him, thus justifying His arrest before the people.
The episode, however, was a complete failure for its instigators. Our Lord dispersed them by instilling in them the terror of being unmasked. Therefore, victorious once more, He could raise the tone of His discourse and unveil the malice of His adversaries with great frankness, before the whole of Public Opinion. Acting in this way, the Divine Master teaches us that it is impossible to do good without combatting evil.
In the following verses, Jesus will affirm regarding the leaders of the people: “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I am He” (Jn 8:23-24). And again He will declare with chilling severity: “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and has nothing to do with the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks according to his own nature, for he is a liar and the father of lies” (Jn 8:44).
Jesus’ triumph over the malice of the Pharisees and scribes in the case of the adulteress thus enabled Him to make the most implacable prophetic denunciation, inviting the people to choose Him over His detractors.
II – Moving and Efficacious Pardon
The scene narrated in this Sunday’s Gospel is of a splendid grandeur. In it shine forth apparently opposite virtues such as mercy carried to a highly consoling extreme for sinners, and the justice with which Our Lord, like a new and divine Daniel, threatens to unmask the hidden crimes of the Pharisees and compels them to flee from His presence driven by overpowering fear.
The chrism of pardon
1 Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 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.
Our Lord customarily sacrificed His sleep to devote Himself to prayer. Then, free from the distractions of apostolic activity, what intimacy was established between the most holy humanity of the Saviour and His beloved Father? It is impossible for us to imagine, but even just by raising the question we are lifted to a higher realm and filled with awe and wonder.
Very symbolic is the detail that, before clearly manifesting His forgiveness, Jesus chose to retire to the Mount of Olives. Alcuin1 explains that in Greek, the words olive tree and mercy share the same root. Thus, mercy would be like the fragrant balm of God that heals, purifies and revives sinners.
After a period of sacrosanct isolation, Our Lord went down to the Temple to teach the people. The people flocked there, thirsting to hear the Master: the atmosphere was set for one of the most touching manifestations of the Lord’s indulgence.
The malice and duplicity of the sons of the devil
3a Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery…
Concerning the crime of adultery, Scripture was peremptory: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbour, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (Lv 20:10; cf. Dt 22:22). In this episode, however, the accusers present only the woman and not her partner, a decisive detail for anyone aware of the diabolical malice and the venomous duplicity of the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees.
Although the guilt of the unfortunate adulteress was real, the way of presenting the case is perfidious, enveloped in the mists of lies. In reality, it was enough for two people to witness the nefarious sin of conjugal betrayal for the stoning of the offenders to take place. And the first to throw stones should be precisely those who had witnessed the deplorable fact. Why did the Pharisees drag the accused woman away without her accomplice, and why did they not name the witnesses? Hidden behind this dishonest conduct were terrible intentions, worthy of the sons of the devil.
With the pure Thou art pure, but with the wicked…
3b …and made her stand in the middle. 4 They said to Him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?”
The Pharisees, in their pride, thought they were deceiving the Son of God Himself… and the trap they set was in fact cunning to the very last detail.
Our Lord was the Redeemer, the Prophet of divine goodness, the Physician come to save the sick (cf. Mk 2:17). But not only this. He was also the upright and just Teacher, who did not intend to change or lessen the Law, but to bring it to its complete fulfilment (cf. Mt 5:17). Thus, to put Him in the alternative of either forgiving the adulteress in violation of the Law, or executing the dictates of Moses without granting His mercy, was to place Him in a very difficult situation; either solution would be damaging to His image, which the Pharisees wanted at all costs to discredit.
And there was a further aggravating factor: if He chose to apply the Law in its full rigour, which seemed more probable given the severity and evidence of the facts, He would be infringing Roman law, which declared the death penalty to be solely reserved to the imperial procurator (cf. Jn 18:31).
However, although the trap set by the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees seems ingenious, divine cunning combined with the most brilliant righteousness will splendidly overcome the plots of the wicked, as the Psalmist had announced: “with the pure thou dost show thyself pure; and with the crooked thou dost show thyself perverse” (Ps 18:26).
Do not tempt the Lord, thy God
6 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.
The Pharisees, blinded by the pride that made them think they were the more cunning, tempted the Son of God, thus committing a terrible sin, which would be duly punished.
Jesus, who was sitting while teaching the people, bent down in silence and wrote with His finger on the ground. This is the only occasion, according to the Gospels, when He wrote anything – and He did it to humiliate and unmask the enemies of the truth.
There are many interpretations of this divine gesture. Some authors believe that Jesus wrote down the sins of those perfidious Pharisees; others that by acting in this way He simply ignored them. Perhaps in the prophetic words of the prophet Jeremiah we find a more adequate key to interpret this attitude of the Divine Teacher: “O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake Thee shall be put to shame; those who turn away from Thee shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water” (Jer 17:13).
An unexpected, wise and terrible sentence
7 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.” 8 Again He bent down and wrote on the ground.
The Pharisees, self-assured and unaware of the meaning of Our Lord’s gesture, stubbornly continued to question Him. Self-conceit clouded the insight of those unfortunate people, reducing them to foolishness. Thus they were ready to fall into the trap that they themselves had set.
Jesus, on the contrary, acts with divine sagacity, absolute superiority and assurance. In a movement imbued with grandeur and prophetism He rises and, fixing His divine gaze on those scoundrels, He says: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” For the Divine Lawgiver it did not seem sufficient for them to have witnessed the criminal act to proceed to stoning the accused. He demanded innocence of customs and holiness of life, aware of the terrible embarrassment in which He placed those hearts hardened in sin.
The scene ends with Jesus writing on the ground again, this time with the intention of making the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees understand what His action meant. It was truly a symbolic judgement, quite clear to a scholar of the Scriptures. And they seem to have comprehended and acted accordingly.
O Divine Daniel
9 And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So He was left alone with the woman before Him.
The scribes and Pharisees, until then boastful and presumptuous, were filled with terror at Our Lord’s reply. The word of the Incarnate Word, divinely sharpened, was more efficacious than the most deleterious of weapons: on hearing His reply, the adversaries of Jesus were pierced by the sword of conscience, which accused them of crimes more horrendous and numerous than those of the wretched sinner they were denouncing.
Did they recall the chaste Susanna and the prophet Daniel? That chosen one of God, young but filled with zeal for justice, undid with keen discernment the plots of two old judges, entrenched in their lust, who tried to condemn an innocent woman.
Did the Pharisees and teachers of the Law fear being discovered by Jesus’ discernment? Everything points in that direction. The miracles He worked, the wisdom of His words and the accuracy of His predictions suggested that He was a far greater prophet than Daniel. Might He not, before the people gathered there, unmask them and expose their shame? Of what use would have been the abject veil of hypocrisy with which they tried to cover up their crimes? What is certain is that “they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.” What a splendid victory for Jesus! However, He chose not to publicly reveal the transgressions of those rogues in order to give them another opportunity to convert – an opportunity that would be rejected once again.
As a result of Our Lord’s words, the situation was completely reversed. The accusers withdrew, vanquished, while the guilty woman, recognizing the Redeemer’s judicial authority, remained before Him awaiting sentence. It is difficult to imagine the feelings of repentance, fear, hope and astonishment that assailed the adulteress’ heart as she was freed from her implacable denouncers, alone in the midst of the crowd, looking up to the One who could save or condemn her. Thus unfolded the touching and sublime encounter of misery with Mercy.
Generous pardon and serious repentance
10 Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She replied, “No one, Sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
After dispersing His enemies, Our Lord arose. The manner in which He pronounces sentence is one of absolute perfection, as if to say, “Since your detractors have departed laden with crimes, I, who am Innocence and the redeeming God, do not condemn you either. Do you not remember what I said through the lips of Ezekiel, ‘Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, says the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live?’ (Ez 18:23). And again: ‘As I live, says the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel?’ (Ez 33:11). Therefore, daughter, I say to you: you may go, and from now on sin no more. Leave the paths of vice and take the road that leads to my Kingdom. The pardon that I now grant you for your transgression will cost Me my life, but I am the Good Shepherd and have come to shed all my Blood for the lost sheep.”
Jesus shows His compassion for the sinner, but evinces His hatred for sin, and commands the adulteress, with grave kindness, no longer to disobey the Commandments of her Father. Indeed, the best penance consists in never returning to past faults.
It may be supposed that, together with His words, Our Lord infused into the soul of the unfortunate woman a sincere, serious and profound grace of sorrow for the evil committed, as well as an efficacious strength for the practice of the virtue of continence. She, dead through guilt, was brought back to life through forgiveness; her filth was transformed into virtue by the Fountain of living waters.
III – Let Us Sin No More!
Sin of any kind can be compared to adultery. In Sacred Scripture, idolatry is often associated with marital unfaithfulness, which was wisely detested beginning with the Mosaic Law. This relationship has a profound meaning that deserves our attention.
The First Commandment prescribes a total, unconditional and exclusive love for God. Our Lord Himself recalls it with great emphasis: “The first [commandment] is, ‘Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one; and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength’” (Mk 12:29-30). This love must bind us to God by an entirely spiritual union, more intimate and sacred than that of the spouses in chaste matrimony.
At the opposite extreme, St. Augustine2 defines sin as an aversion to God and an inclination towards creatures. Thus, to turn one’s back on the Almighty in order to idolize contingent beings in His place is a betrayal similar to adultery, since it means leaving the one true Love in order to follow the ephemeral, the passing and the deceptive. In this sense, we offend God with our faults in a way similar or worse than the adulteress with her concupiscence.
Let us put ourselves in the place of this poor woman. Guilty of sin, we may have deserved hell on more than one occasion, if not many times. The fear of stoning is a mere shadow compared to the light of salutary dread that should inspire us at the thought of eternal punishment, of fire and gnashing of teeth, as well as the penalty of damnation, which consists in remaining an enemy of God forever and ever. Surely, the imminence of being buried under a rain of stones caused the culprit to reflect. How can we fail to think of the consequences of dying in mortal sin?
On the other hand, let us consider the usefulness of humiliation. How many do not find it unbearable to lower themselves to the point of declaring their faults to a priest? Let us think, however, of the good it did the adulteress to find herself publicly incriminated, before a multitude who looked upon her with revulsion. It is better to be humbled in this life than to suffer the contempt of the Angels and Blessed for all eternity. Blessed Sacrament of Confession! We need only to be sincere and to accuse ourselves with simplicity for God’s heart to change in our regard, and instead of hearing a sentence of condemnation, we shall hear the gentle and paternal formula of absolution.
This will be the case, provided we are willing to sin no more!
And our conversion may be made easier by the fact that we can count on Our Lady’s help. She was the royal and unsurpassable gift which the Good Shepherd gave to us from the Cross, in an act of utmost compassion. Thanks to Mary’s omnipotent mediation, there is no sin that does not obtain ample and immediate pardon, and there is no sinner who cannot be perfectly sanctified. Let us trust in her maternal and immaculate Heart, which is the expression of her ineffable goodness, of her unspeakable sweetness, and her inexhaustible mercy. ◊
1 Cf. ALCUIN, apud ST. THOMAS AQUINAS. Catena Aurea. In Ioannem, c.VIII, v.1-11.
2 Cf. ST. AUGUSTINE. De libero arbitrio. L.I, c.16, n.35. In: Obras. 3.ed. Madrid: BAC, 1963, v.III, p.245.