This Gospel proclaims God’s mercy to us, incarnated and told by Jesus. To put Jesus to the test and to have some charge to bring against him, some scribes and Pharisees bring a woman forward in front of the temple who, they say, has been surprised in adultery. They accuse him of mercy to sinners as a violation of the Torah. However, like the prophets, Jesus interprets and fulfils the Law of Moses by seeking the Spirit of God in the interpretation of the text which he wrote so that it might light us on our way. And God’s light is always mercy for us.
Since the Torah says that both the man and the woman surprised in flagrant adultery should be killed, why do they subject only the woman to judgement for stoning? Either the adultery was not flagrant and thus theirs was a crime of false testimony; or they made an unjust use of the Torah, sparing the man in accordance with the age-old prejudice. The Gospel wants to show us a serious sin which above all tempts religious men of all times: to make themselves the judges of their neighbour, calling on the law which they are the first to disobey. Those who use the Law of God as a weapon to condemn others have not understood either the gift of the Torah or their own hearts.
When Jesus is questioned, he remains silent: for him the reality that counts is the presence of that woman which bows him down with its burden of suffering and mystery, not the opportunity for a religious challenge. And he bends down to the ground: two gentle actions which already in themselves tell of the Lord’s gentle mercy for the poor woman who had been so humiliated. And bending down, he writes on the ground. This mysterious, silent, illegible writing in the dust is similar to the subtle silence which Elijah hears on Mount Horeb: inaudible words, adapted to the inexpressible, which indicate God’s merciful presence.
And twice Jesus writes with his finger on the ground. God too writes the same eternal law on the stone tablets twice. Indeed, confronted by the people’s sin, Moses breaks them, intuiting and revealing for ever that the Law of God lets itself be broken in order not to destroy the sinner. And Moses goes back to the Lord who writes them again: the same Covenant, the same writing by the finger of God on other stones, the same partners of God. For our God desires to show us mercy in order to maintain his fidelity.
God’s holy law is not, can never be, like the laws which human beings must give themselves. Woe betide us and others if we confuse them! Using God’s law as a law to impose in order to command and punish is using the gift of God for stoning, in accordance with each person’s prejudices. Yet in the gift of the Torah the Lord wished to make us know his paths and our own hearts, so that we might return to him.
But since those religious men insist on questioning him, Jesus says to them something extraordinary: “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her”, because Jesus knew that all the other stones would be far easier to throw for us human men and women who find it easy to do the same as everyone else, especially against a victim. And once again Jesus bends down and is silent, for he does not even condemn them, precisely because he has not come to condemn. And here another extraordinary thing happens.
These religious men, already prepared to throw stones, become an example for us.
Having heard Jesus’ words they fall silent, no one lies or acts hypocritically.Each one interprets himself in the light of those words, no longer using the woman as a self-justifying basis for comparison. Jesus’ words are an enlightenment for everyone, and they leave. The elderly go first, for they have had more time to know themselves. Jesus did not name their sins, but each one has interpreted himself and found he was different from what he wanted to believe and to have others believe.
Like them and like the poor woman, let us listen to Jesus and to what the Holy Spirit writes in our hearts and, aware of our painful fallibility, let us learn that obedience to the word of God is always compassion and mercy.
St. Peter’s Square
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