In today’s Gospel account from John, many people gathered around Jesus in the temple area and were sitting and listening to him, when a horrific display of human wickedness breaks in as, “the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle” (Jn 8:3).
This act of depravity is worse if we spend any time thinking about this verse. This was a calculated plan hatched by the scribes and Pharisees. They had been watching this woman for the opportune time to break in and catch her, using their own words of accusation, in “the very act of committing adultery” (Jn 8:4). If this group was this calculated and malicious, they would not have probably even given her the opportunity to put her clothes on, but grabbed her and brought her to the temple area.
The shame that this woman must have had to endure as she was dragged openly and publicly through the streets was made worse because this crowd brought her to the temple area. The temple was where people came to give sacrifice to atone for their sins and to worship God. What was worse was that the dehumanization of this woman most likely had nothing to do with bringing her to repentance, but had all to do with demeaning her for their own twisted ends to trap Jesus.
The Pharisees and scribes hatched this plot just to trap Jesus in what they believed was a fool proof way to bring charges against him. If Jesus did not follow the law of Moses and condemn her to be stoned, he could be charged for speaking out against the Mosaic law. If he did condemn her, he would have lost face in front of all those who had come to listen to him preach as he often had done about the mercy and forgiveness of God his Father.
The response of Jesus was to give some visual aid to another of his teachings of taking the log out of your own eye before you seek to remove the splinter in another’s (cf. Mt 7:5). Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger (Jn 8:6). We do not know what Jesus wrote in the dirt that day. St Augustine proposed that he was writing the sins of those gathered around him as they were waiting for his judgment.
This makes sense, for when Jesus stood up he said, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn 8:7). Jesus then knelt back down and continued to write on the ground. One by one, starting with the elders, the accusers, and even those who had gathered to listen to Jesus that morning, all walked away.
Jesus stood to find only the woman standing before him. This is the first time he addressed her. He asked where her accusers were, and “Has no one condemned you?” She replied with three simple words, “No one, sir.” And Jesus replied, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more” (Jn 8:8-11). Jesus did not seek to inflict any more shame on this woman but instead he forgave her.
Jesus and the woman stood facing each other in the temple area, a stone’s throw away from where the Mercy Seat of God was present in the Temple. Jesus met this woman’s shame and misery with compassion, mercy, and forgiveness. He cleansed the Temple of the hypocrisy of those Pharisees and scribes who had darkened the Temple area that day. He did convict the woman of her sin, but did so in a way that respected her dignity, unlike those who hauled her out publicly to humiliate her for their own malicious purposes, but in private, when all had gone.
Though the compassion, love, and mercy, of Jesus, I can imagine, that the woman who had been dragged through the streets, humiliated, and full of shame, who also feared that her death was imminent, walked away from her encounter with Jesus crying not just with tears of relief, but with tears of joy, having been healed and empowered by Jesus. She may indeed have died that day, but as she walked away, was born again, a new creature, formed and fashioned by the infinite love of God.
How do people walk away after they encounter us? Do they feel belittled, dehumanized, and demeaned, or understood, empowered, and redeemed? Jesus meets our misery and shame with compassion, love, and mercy. Are we willing to do the same with each other?
Painting: The Woman Caught in Adultery by Jean Carter Kimble