Brief synopsis of the readings: In Isaiah, the Lord (through Isaiah) announced that He will make “a road in the wilderness, paths in the wild.” Because of this there is “no need to thing about what was done before.” In John’s Gospel Jesus was teaching in the Temple when a group of scribes and Pharisees brought him a woman. They explained that she was caught in adultery and according to the law she should be stoned to death. They asked Jesus what they should do. Jesus wrote in the dirt, and her accusers left. Jesus then spoke to the woman and asked if there was anyone to condemn her. “No one, sir,” she replied. Jesus then told her that he didn’t condemn her either and admonished her to not sin any longer.
Last week I spoke about how there are consequences to our actions, how the younger son in the Prodigal Son story doesn’t get to use forgiveness as a way to continue to be irresponsible toward his family. Today I want to explore a different way to look at forgiveness.
Much like the parable of the Prodigal Son, virtually every Christian knows about the Woman Caught in Adultery. Much like Adam and Eve and Noah’s Ark, this reading has provided a myriad of jokes (my favorite? Jesus states that only the sinless have the right to throw the first stone. The crowd parts and an elderly Jewish woman hauls off and throws the first stone. Exasperated, Jesus says: “Would you cut it out mom? I’m trying to make a point here.”)
This parable fascinates us, I believe, because it deals with sex and sexuality. We Christians find ourselves tolerant of nearly every sin: we regularly overlook greed, selfishness, and pride. We gossip, we lie, and we take advantage of others. But when a couple lives together before marriage we accuse them of “living in sin.”
In fairness, the Old Testament takes adultery seriously. Leviticus 10:20 says this: “If a man commits adultery with his neighbor’s wife, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.” Clearly the scribes and the Pharisees dragged this woman to Jesus in the hopes of trapping him. If he agreed to stone the woman he wouldn’t be any better than the scribes and Pharisees, and if he suggested mercy he would violate the law.
And let me call this out: Leviticus makes both parties equally guilty but we find no mention of the man caught in adultery. Today, thousands of years after these readings found their way into Scripture, we continue to struggle with the inequality of sins of sexuality.
We all know about King David and many of us know about his affair with Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah (you can read about this in the 2nd Book of Samuel, Chapter 11). Simply put, King David saw a beautiful woman and had sex with her, even though she was married to one of David’s soldiers. While David paid a price for this, according to Leviticus both he and Bathsheba should have been stoned to death.
We look at this with modern eyes (and we should) and we recognize that Bathsheba was not in a position to give consent, and frankly should not be seen as guilty. But let’s face it: David was not stoned to death not because of his actions, but because of his position. The woman in today’s Gospel was dragged to Jesus not because of her sin but because of her low position in the hierarchy. We don’t know anything about the Man Caught in Adultery; perhaps he was let go because of his high position in the hierarchy.
But let’s move on from this issue and move on to other understandings of these readings.
In our first reading from Isaiah we learn that we should not “need to recall the past.” God will provide us a path in the wilderness.
I think our Gospel shows us the same path. Today we live with social media we can be haunted by our worst moment: we’re applying to teach high school but our perspective employer finds that five years ago we spent spring break in Mexico intoxicated. Or, like the woman in today’s Gospel, we find ourselves compromised by one moment of carelessness.
Nothing describes our experience as Christians more than forgiveness. When we say “Jesus died for our sins” it’s not an intellectual truth. It means that we are not defined by our worst moment, but our best. The woman caught in adultery reasonably feared that her worst moment would be fatal.
And even when Jesus released her from her sin, we can understand that she could have well lived the rest of her live in shame and guilt. I think many of us read this and think that she “dodged a bullet” when Jesus released her from her sin. We don’t know, but I hope she walked away from this experience recognizing the experience of forgiveness and not spending the rest of her life feeling guilty about it.
I hope that’s true for the rest of us. We all live with the regret of our past sins and with varying degrees of success we attempt to move on from these sins. But sometimes we can’t or don’t feel we should. We joke about Jewish or Catholic guilt, but it’s real: “Do you think Moses tramped through the desert for 40 years so you can tell me that you’re gay?” “Was that you on an old tape of “Girls Gone Wild?” And sometimes these tapes exist only in our memories but are just as real.
For and away, most of us have the hardest time forgiving ourselves. And I can tell you from experience that having a good memory of sometimes a two edged sword. But if God has promised to forgive us anything we do, what benefit is there in refusing to forgive ourselves? I suspect this is rooted in our inability to truly believe that God is serious when He promises us to forgive without condition. I love the quotation from Martin Luther when he said: “Be a sinner and sin boldly, but believe and rejoice in Christ even more boldly.”
Jesus didn’t condemn this woman. He didn’t do it because he was being a nice guy or because he wanted this woman to like him. He didn’t condemn her because he wanted to show, in graphic detail, that God’s forgiveness in limitless. We should act like we believe this.