FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT (2022)
There surely were many moments during Jesus’ brief earthly ministry when the actions of His fellow men and women caused Him a great deal of dismay. The gospel story for this fifth Sunday of Lent is no exception. After a short trip to the Mount of Olives, John tells us that, “early in the morning,” Jesus “arrived again in the temple area,” desirous of doing what He loved to do, teaching people all about the good news. His blessed moment of teaching “all the people” who came to Him, was soon interrupted by the so-called religious leaders of His day who would take Him away from the more peaceful moments of teaching, to a situation which would be far more confrontational.
The gospels are replete with ‘confrontational’ moments with the Scribes and Pharisees, for Jesus had a special dislike of the hypocrisy which sullied the lives of so many religious leaders of His day, and He was never afraid to point a finger at their hypocrisy, even though Jesus knew it was raising the tension between them and would soon lead to their collective cries for His crucifixion. Their hypocrisy was so glaring in today’s gospel, that it pulled Jesus away from what He would rather be doing, and into the middle of what can only be described as a ‘set-up’.
The so-called religious leaders had no concern for the woman they said was caught in the act of adultery, and they made her stand in the middle of a circle where her death by stoning could be easily accomplished. No mention is made of why a man (“caught in the act”) was not also dragged before the crowd? As paternalistic as the society of Jesus’ day was, the law actually prescribed that both the man and the woman who had committed adultery be stoned. The religious leaders not only wanted to embarrass the woman, but they were also searching for some way to find a charge that they could bring against Jesus. If Jesus said don’t stone her, He would be ignoring the law. If He took part in her stoning, they would tell others that He was not the man so many thought He was.
Jesus did nothing but doodle on the ground, and when they persisted asking what they should do, He stood up and uttered the famous saying: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” After doodling some more on the ground, the self-righteous “went away one by one, beginning with the elders,” leaving just the woman and Jesus standing there. By the end of the chapter Jesus will quickly be leaving the temple area, for the same self-righteous will be picking up stones to stone Him.
The religious leaders might have been better served had they just mixed with the crowd listening to Jesus teach, but like the self-righteous in our own day, they don’t believe they have anything to learn, and they do not easily see themselves as actual sinners, in spite of their walking away. Like the prodigal son in last weekend’s gospel, the turning point for redemption is the acknowledgement that we are all sinners. We should never be confused by the good we do; we should never be confused about our holiness because of the prayers we raise. All of us are sinful, and it is the recognition of that holiness which is the threshold of redemption.
There is no discussion with the woman about whether the charges are true, just as their was no discussion with the prodigal son about how he spent his inheritance. In today’s gospel Jesus is in a scene of great unconditional love: “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.” What is hoped for is not that the woman is henceforth in perfect holiness. Rather, it is that the encounter with Jesus has so changed her life for the better that she has a keener understanding of who Jesus is, and a stronger desire to serve Him and her neighbors with all her heart and soul. What is desired for the nameless woman in today’s gospel, is what is desired for all of us. That we will “forget what lies behind (our sinful ways),” and we will “strain forward to what lies ahead,” pursuing our “goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.” [Philippians 3:14]