The woman caught in adultery
In a Catholic church in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, there is a stained-glass window depicting today’s Sunday Gospel of the woman caught in adultery. Inscribed in large lettering are the words ‘Go and sin no more’. The window was designed with a flap that opens out in the summer to cool the church. Visitors to the church might be shocked to see however that it alters the sentence – the opening of the flap window then renders the sentence (in the summer) ‘Go and sin more’!
We have a strange new culture of condemnation in this TV age. There has always been a tendency in our fallen state to enjoy a perverse sense of superiority and delicious satisfaction in passing judgment on others. None of us are completely immune from being thrillingly shocked and titillated by a juicy story of intrigue, gossip, conflict or infidelity. The coffee dock, the water cooler, the lunch break give us opportunities to share our sense of glee and shock at the foibles of others as well as the junk we have gleaned from the previous day’s or night’s TV shows. Tabloid media give us a daily diet of celebrity gossip in magazines and newspapers to feed our idle curiosity about the shenanigans of politicians, sports personalities and other celebrities. Daytime TV shows portray bickering dysfunctional families, roaring out beeped out expletives in courtroom scenes or carefully managed and edited live audiences all too eager to vent feelings of indignation and entertainment. Whole programmes are given over to paternity suits and DNA results to (dis)prove paternity. Meanwhile the alternately wise-cracking and deadly serious TV host stands or patrols somewhere in the middle of the studio, cue cards and microphone in hand, supposedly neutral and objective, creating a name for him or herself, while the names and lives of those under scrutiny are fodder for the ratings and are all-too quickly forgotten by the ad-break. All the while we sit in judgment on our sofas taking it all in, proclaiming the world has gone mad.
What a contrast to the Gospel – ‘let those who have not sinned throw the first stone’ ‘I do not condemn you’ and ‘Go and sin no more’. It is a passage worth reading often and keeping nearby next time we read of a court case, a marriage failure, an adulterous situation, a financial scandal. It is worth bearing in mind that we will be judged in the manner in which we judge. The scenarios we watch or hear about can lull us into a false sense of security that at least ‘we are not that bad’. Our often false sense of outrage may veil arrogance and self-deceit that we would or could not sin so badly.
The gospel today shows Jesus between the two extremes of moral indignation and moral permissiveness. He belongs to neither camp. The woman caught in adultery is a secret sinner whose sin is found out. It is likely that was set up, watched, preyed upon, her movements known, so that she could not but be caught. How well her sinning was ready for inspection and condemnation! Who and how many were watching? She was not alone in her sin but stood alone condemned.
This incident recorded in the Gospel of Luke once more illustrates Jesus’ mercy to the outcast, marginalized and condemned in a society of moral hypocrisy. It shows His tender mercy to the unfortunate nameless woman, whose sin is so common. And there is no sign of the man who sinned with her. One feels that Jesus once more is using the example of notoriety and reputation as the doorway to mercy in the community. Like Zacchaeus, the woman at the well, the woman who washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, the tax collectors and sinners, all were people whose sins were well known. They were also commonly despised. Their reputation had preceded them.
The details of the story of Jesus’ writing in sand and ‘beginning with the eldest’ dropping the stones ring so true. Jesus neither condones the mob’s hastiness nor condemns the sinner. He says little but the words have echoed down the centuries: ‘let he who has not sinned cast the first stone’, and ‘go and sin no more’. We are the ones who must toss the stones, who cannot hide behind the veil of public opinion. We are the ones who must ultimately stand alone before Jesus some day.
It is a gospel that contrasts with Jesus’ condemnation before the angry stirred-up mob on Good Friday morning. There Jesus takes upon himself all the anger and guilt of the world – and forgives all.
May we now too go and sin no more, and experience this Lent the joy of God’s forgiveness.