Fifth Sunday of Lent – March 31, 1974 – C.N.R.
The beautiful account of the woman caught in adultery, most scholars believe, was not part of the original Gospel according to St. John. It seems to have been a story which circulated on its own, but was obviously treasured by the Church and eventually found its way into the Gospel’s text. It is read on this Sunday of Lent, it seems, for two reasons, first, for the hope of sinners, not one of whom would the Lord see perish, and secondly, for the light it throws on the mystery of human sinfulness and the forgiveness of God.
We might catch a theme from Augustine’s comment on Jesus’ reply, “Let the one of you without sin cast the first stone.” “Wisdom’s answer,” Augustine wrote, “how it sent them back, into themselves! Their calumnies they could express externally; themselves they did not examine internally. They could see the adulteress; themselves they did riot see.” With his usual brilliance, Augustine notes an essential point of the narrative. The woman taken in adultery was a way for her accusers to avoid themselves. She is obviously a sinner, they might have said, far worse than they; and their moral indignation could be comfortably directed out, away from themselves. Apart from the attempt to trap Jesus, the essence of their attempt is forgetfulness of their own sinfulness, and this too is the root of their inability to forgive.
We might go on to note a further dimension. The scribes and Pharisees come together in accusation of the woman, in a sort of community; they all agree that the woman is a sinner, and together they seek to discredit Jesus. But it is a false community created here, because its basis is their common self-forgetfulness, and its effect is to create three parties, themselves, the woman, and Christ. Their attempt is the refusal of the first condition of genuine community, the acknowledgment of common sinfulness, and that self-forgetfulness quickly becomes the arrogance that splits mankind apart into jealous and selfish parties, a development only too apparent in our nation today and even within our Church. The dissolution of community is the claim that all truth and right lie on one side or another, the expenditure of time and energy for the defense of one’s group, the unwillingness to surrender present group-advantage for the sake of future and common good.
Jesus’ word to the woman’s accusers destroys the presuppositions of this attitude and undoes its false community: “One by one, they went away,” the Gospel tells us. And with their departure, the real truth is seen: that there are not three or more groups, there are only two parties, for in Augustine’s words, “Only two were left: misera et misericordia, the pitiable woman and pity itself.” By driving them back within the selves they had forgotten, Jesus has driven the others away from each other; now they must confront themselves, and their own sinfulness, and decide where they shall stand, alone and isolated, or part now of a genuine community, in which case they must return and stand alongside their sister, one with her in their sinfulness, one with her before Christ, one with her in hearing his word of forgiveness and challenge.
It is in such community that we are to gather here, to learn from our common experience of God’s acceptance in Christ the words and gestures and concrete deeds that can work to counteract the disintegrating tendencies of our day, to re-knit a social and ecclesial fabric out of the truth of things, the truth about ourselves, singly and as groups, the truth about others, and above all, the truth as it is in Jesus. Let us pray for such clear-sighted honesty for ourselves and for all the Church, and let us strive to make it the great gift we bring to the world.