Fifth Sunday of Lent – Cycle C

1st Reading - Isaiah 43: 16-21

Responsorial Psalm – 126: 1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6

2nd Reading – Philippians 3: 8-14

Gospel – John 8: 1-11

It is essential to look at this gospel story with an understanding of the political environment at the time.  We have several different kinds of people in this story.  The Scribes were educated men, similar to a lawyer or teacher.  The Pharisees were leaders of the community. Their view of the Law of Moses (under which they held their authority) was black and white.  It was more important to follow the law precisely than to judge someone by their intent.  There were other people there too; members of the community who had been listening to Jesus teaching that day.  I think we can also assume the disciples were there as well.

The Scribes and Pharisees come up with a plan to try and trap Jesus.  They bring to him a woman that has been “caught in the very act of committing adultery.”  They remind Jesus that the Law of Moses says the woman should be stoned to death, and then they ask him what He thought.  Wisely, Jesus stays silent.  He knows He is being set up for possible arrest.  If Jesus states that they should follow law and stone the woman to death, He is at risk of being arrested by Roman authorities.  The Romans had outlawed Jews from performing capital punishment.  If Jesus says they should release the woman, He will appear irreligious, deviating from the Law of Moses.  It seems like a no-win situation.

Jesus spends the time doodling in the dirt seeming to ignore their questioning.  When the Scribes and Pharisees persist, Jesus turns the tables and puts the condemnation back on them.  He calls the crowd to consider their motives; to look at their own sins instead.  One by one they leave. Recognizing the significance of honor and shame to this community, once they realized Jesus had outwitted them, they left the scene.

This entire episode was a trap and not really about the woman at all.  (If she had been caught “in the very act” where was her partner?)  The woman was a pawn in the big scheme, and yet Jesus shows compassion and mercy.  He takes a tremendous risk by speaking to her alone; a woman and a stranger.  Jesus does not say that her sin is not grave, only that she should leave and sin no more.

There is a tradition going back to St. Jerome that what Jesus was writing in the dirt was the sins of the accusers and those people present.  This could be in reference to a verse in Jeremiah: “names of those who turn away from Yahweh would have their names written on the earth.” (17:13) Still, other biblical scholars believe that Jesus was writing from Exodus 23:1 where no one was to offer false witness against another person. 

St. Augustine wrote of the emotion the woman must have felt as she waited for this situation to end.  “Relicti sunt duo, miseria et misericordia.”  “Only two were left, misery and mercy.”  The mercy of Jesus met the misery of the woman, and she left with the forgiveness she needed to move forward and transform.  Jesus is continually inviting us to transform our misery with His mercy.  He invites us to conversion instead of punishment.

Reflection Questions:

1.        Have I been quick to judge someone I knew was wrong? 

2.        Is it ever OK to condemn others even if they are wrong? Why or why not?

3.        Mercy is hard to come by in our culture.  When was the last time I was merciful toward another?

4.        Have I shown mercy to myself?

The RCIA used readings from Cycle A for this week, so there is no handout available.