Writing in the Sand
by Rev. James Hudgins
Reprinted with permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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John wrote to show that Christ was
the Messiah, the Divine Son of God.
Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all day people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such a woman. So what do you say?" They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She replied, "No one, sir." Then Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more."
The Gospel this week tells us the beloved story of the mercy of Jesus toward the woman caught in the act of adultery.
In Our Lord's time, three crimes in Israel were punishable by death — idolatry, murder and adultery. The book of Deuteronomy states it unambiguously — the punishment for adultery was death by stoning. At this time however, Israel is occupied by the Roman Empire, and the Romans gave the Jews no power to carry out the death sentence on anyone. Remember Good Friday? Only the Roman procurator Pontius Pilate could sentence Jesus to death, not the Jewish high priests. No one in Israel had been condemned to death by stoning for more than 500 years.
The Pharisees didn’t really care about justice toward this woman. If they did, then where was the man caught in adultery with her? What the Pharisees really want is to trap Jesus. And here’s the trap — if Jesus says, “Stone her to death,” then he is in trouble with the Roman government. If Jesus says, “Let her go free,” he negates the law of Moses.
So, Jesus does the last thing they ever imagined. He writes in the ground. It's the only time in the Bible in which Jesus ever wrote anything, and regretfully, it was in that most impermanent of all media — sand. Writing in the ground is a highly symbolic action. St. John wants the reader to know that Jesus is no ordinary man, but God himself. The only other time in which the Bible says God wrote something with his own finger was the Ten Commandments. Jesus now writes a new law — a law of mercy — meant to be inscribed in our own hearts.
Here we see Jesus as he truly is. Fully compassionate, but absolutely unyielding in principle. First comes compassion. “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And one by one, the crowd walks away in silence. Next comes the unyielding principle. Notice, he does not say to the woman, “Go on your way now, you’ve done nothing wrong. Adultery is just fine with me.” He says rather, “Has no one condemned you? Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”
“I do not condemn you.” How can Jesus say that to this woman? Because Jesus will be condemned for her, in her place. There will indeed be a death for this sin, but it will be Our Lord's death, not hers. Jesus will pay a debt he does not owe, because this woman owes a debt she cannot pay.
Everyone loves this story of Jesus’ compassion, but ask yourself, “How was Jesus most compassionate toward that poor woman?” Was it dispersing the crowds who were trying to kill her? It was not. The most compassionate thing Christ did was to tell the woman to avoid her sin. The first action saved her life, but the second may well have saved her immortal soul.
Have we forgotten that to admonish the sinner is a spiritual work of mercy? Not to pass a judgment on someone. Not to tell them “You’re guilty,” but to recognize sin for what it is, call it by its name, and tell those we love to avoid it. We don’t do that very well. We speak all sorts of sociological babble instead. We say that some behavior is “inappropriate” or “unacceptable,” but how often do we tell those we love the clear difference between right and wrong?
Everyone in authority has this responsibility. It falls heavily on the shoulders of priests. Pray that your priests tell you the truth about Christ’s message. It falls heavily on the shoulders of parents of all ages. Parents, if you don’t have the courage to teach your children what’s sinful and what’s not, they will probably never learn the difference. The unconditional love of Jesus takes many forms, and so it must be with us. We must always love the sinner, but we must never forget to hate the sin. May God give us the grace to recognize the difference, and the courage to correct those we love.
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