Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 126; Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11
For the last Sunday before Holy Week, unless for RCIA you’re reading the Raising of Lazarus, this year’s Lectionary gives us John’s telling of the Woman Caught in Adultery. The theme is second chances.
That theme begins with Isaiah 43. There’s a major turn in Isaiah at chapter 40—modern scholars wonder whether the “First Isaiah” wrote as Jerusalem was being attacked by the Babylonians, and the “Second Isaiah” wrote as they were coming back from Babylon, and even Thomas Aquinas begins his commentary by saying clearly this book has two halves. Let’s just say that the first half is prophecies of woe, and the second half is prophecies of hope.
So our reading says the God, “who leads out chariots and horsemen, a powerful army”—like the army that “First Isaiah” says God sent to destroy sinful Jerusalem—is later “doing something new.” That newness, “In the desert I make a way,” sounds to me more like a recollection of how he got his people out of Egypt, and less like the specifics of how they came back from Babylon. (That route is actually up the beautiful Euphrates, until you’re north of Palestine, and then south through the beauties of Syria and Lebanon.) But the point is, he always saves his people.
Our reading of Philippians turns that newness inside out. It’s not that he brings us “back” to earthly splendor, but that he pulls us forward: “forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead.” We count what lies behind “so much rubbish,” but look forward to being transformed in righteousness “through faith in Christ.” But still, it’s a second chance, a path out of the desert. God does not abandon his people.
That’s the obvious theme of the Woman Caught in Adultery: instead of stoning her, he says, “go and sin no more.”
But a couple kooky thoughts on John’s rich commentary on this story:
First, on stoning. We all know that they say, “Moses commanded us to stone such women,” and Jesus says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
But it’s worth noticing that both sides are twisting the Law of Moses. Actually, what Moses says is, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10). Both of them. And John is careful to quote them saying, “This woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery”: you can’t catch one without the other.
So what’s going on? How faithful are they to the Law? Are they “without transgression,” even here? Or are they instead prosecuting the one side of the Law that they like, and ignoring the other? There’s something dramatic about how they “made her stand in the middle.” In the Greek, I think, it’s a phrase that always emphasizes being the weirdo, the one unlike everyone who surrounds you. We’re talking about a bunch of men attacking a woman: “the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman.”
We’re so used to hating on the Law of Moses that we miss its civilizing effect. Killing the woman is what every pagan culture does. Punishing the man, too, is a dramatic move toward social responsibility.
So too stoning. It sounds so brutal to us, but Jesus’s words remind us how it worked. He says, “throw the first stone.” But the whole point of stoning is that no one throws the first stone. Modern firing lines are a bit like this: when they execute someone by gunfire, the Nazis would have one man do it, so he knows he did it, but more civilized societies have several guns, and one of them is not loaded, so that each man can hope maybe it wasn’t him. Stoning is a form of execution that demands responsibility from everyone in the community. You don’t send someone to an abstract Death Row where you never have to think about it again: everyone in the community has to stare the death penalty in the face, and participate in it.
I’m not trying to defend capital punishment. I’m trying to say that Moses is always taking a step in the right direction, a step toward civilization, toward at least recognizing what the death penalty means.
Moses is not the bad guy in this story. In fact, the goodness of Moses brings out the evil of the scribes and Pharisees, who ignore the sin of the man and can’t bear to take personal responsibility for the punishment that sounded so exciting to them.
God’s true law is not about lynching people who are different from us, much as we like to twist it in that direction. God’s law is about growing in personal responsibility.
That’s our side, now God’s side.
Second: bending. Several times in the story, “Jesus bent down” and then “straightened up.” In Greek it’s the same word: he bends, and he unbends. That’s a weird image, and not the way modern writers write—but it is the way ancient writers write. To their rigidity, Jesus responds with flexibility. It’s not the flexibility of condoning sin—he tells her to sin no more. But it is the flexibility of second chances. It is the flexibility of a God who bends down to us, and then rises up again to carry us to heaven.
And so, third: drawing on the earth. When it says, “Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger,” I think it’s quoting Exodus (31:18): “And he gave to Moses, when he had finished speaking with him on Mount Sinai, the two tablets of the testimony, tablets of stone, written with the finger of God.” Jesus is the author of the Law, who wrote it with his own finger, not only on tablets of stone, but right into the earth itself, when he created us.
But the earth into which he inscribed it is more flexible than stone. He doesn’t change the Law—Jesus is clear about the evil of adultery, and tells the woman to sin no more—but he has the flexibility and strength to wipe away this sin from her heart. Not everything is written in stone.
Where is Jesus calling you to offer others—or yourself—a second chance?