How many times do we imagine this scene had occurred in
the time of Jesus? If it was the law, and if we know human nature, chances
are that many times a woman was stoned to death by a morally outraged
crowd. But probably never once would the man who had been caught with
her suffer the same consequences.
The scribes and pharisees bring a woman to Jesus in order
to use her to trap him. So this particular woman, who had been exploited
by a man for sexual gratification, was to be exploited again by the authorities
as a weapon against Jesus. In neither case would there be any concern
for her welfare, for her redemption, for anything pertaining to her dignity
as a human person. Jesus bent over and wrote in the dust when they brought
her to him, then raised his head to say, “Let the one among you
without sin be the first to cast a stone at her,” and resumed his
writing in the dust. Then he addressed her as a person, as someone worthy
of his attention, and told her in so many words not to disgrace herself
by committing this sin again, that she was better than that. Her sin,
in my estimation, was not the sexual encounter called adultery. Her sin,
I believe, was thinking that she was worthless, someone who could be used,
who had no intrinsic value. Yes, Jesus was telling her not to commit adultery
again. But he was also saying that she should see herself as God sees
her, as he sees her, a person with dignity who ought to act differently.
Isaiah tells us in the first reading that God makes all
things new. We should let go of the past and allow God to lead us in new
ways. How difficult it is to change, to adjust, to go in new ways. We
want to keep things as they are because that’s the most comfortable
way for us. The bane of every pastor’s existence, when trying to
innovate, is to hear people say, “We’ve always done it that
way,” when they want to keep things as they are and resist change.
Jesus challenges us today to see things anew, to open our minds and hearts
to the new way of thinking that he brought to light, as he had in so many
other ways during his public ministry. This encounter is yet another example
of the ways that he bucked the system, the closed-mindedness of the scribes
and pharisees, who so often condemned him for doing things differently.
One important reason that Jesus brought to light is that
we are not perfect, and therefore in need of learning, growing, changing.
If we were perfect, we would never need to change. The prime sin of humankind
was the sin of pride in the Garden of Eden, that humans wanted to be God.
Worse than just wanting to be, they thought they could be. We are constantly
struggling with that sin of pride, that temptation to think we know everything
and we don’t need to change. Like the scribes and pharisees we are
prone to want to keep things as they are and not go through the uncomfortableness
of growing, of changing, of being led in new ways to become better people.
Jesus was confronted with a scene that the people of his
day took for granted; they were ready to stone a woman to death. He made
them think, forced them to confront the reality of the situation that
none of them was in a position to condemn this woman if they were truthful
with themselves. He further opened their eyes to the plight of the woman
who was exploited. Recently I had the opportunity to meet an Augustinian
brother from Nigeria, Fr. Patrick, who told me about the situation of
widows in Nigeria. First of all, girls are not educated or given any special
training; they are not valued for anything other than producing children
and taking care of the house. When a woman is widowed, she often has several
children and may be only around 30. Her husband’s family will come
to reclaim “his” possessions, leaving her destitute. She has
to marry one of his brothers, or fend for herself. With no training, no
education, she often has to resort to the world’s oldest profession.
Just like the woman in today’s Gospel, she is exploited by her society,
and if she were caught or had a child out of wedlock, she could easily
be executed for her “sin”. We have to stand up for those who
are still exploited in our world; we Christians should be doing as Jesus
did, making people uncomfortable as we confront them with the gross injustice
of situations like this.
Jesus made people uncomfortable, challenging them to let
go of the past which they hold on to for the sake of convenience, so that
they can grow and, as St. Paul said in the second reading, move towards
that upward calling in Christ. We are not perfect; we are all sinners,
in need of help. We will become better people as we become more like Christ.
He challenges us to open our minds and hearts so that we can see the injustices
in our world today, not only towards women, but towards immigrants, people
suspected of terrorism only because of their ethnic origin, those who
are poor and uneducated – we know the many ways that prejudice exists.
Christians don’t do that; Christians act as Jesus did towards all
people because he saw them as children of God, equally valuable and lovable
by his Almighty Father. This season of Lent is a time for us to stretch,
to grow, to open our minds and hearts to the ways that Jesus teaches us.