This Sunday’s gospel reading is of the woman caught in adultery. I’d like to offer a couple of thoughts about how the decision made by Jesus in this gospel applied right at the moment of Jesus’ ministry, as well as how it applies right now.
Adultery is a serious sin, to be sure, and on its own the story of the woman brought before Jesus is a story of the merciful love of God and the fact that we’re all in need of forgiveness. It’s particularly poignant, though, when we consider two things about the situation in the time of Jesus: Jesus’ backstory thus far in His ministry, and the status of Israel at that time.
Jesus’ backstory is that He was known to associate with tax collectors and with prostitutes. He would dine with them, drink with them, and even invite them to follow Him as He traveled Galilee and Judea to teach and to heal. This scandalized people. They called Jesus a drunkard and a glutton, and probably whispered worse things about Him. There was a pretty serious desire on the part of the observant Jews to figure out where Jesus stood with regard to these moral and social outcasts. In this Sunday’s gospel, them bringing a woman caught in the act of adultery was the buildup of potentially years of confusion about Jesus and His expectations. Jesus’ response is the most perfect response. We maybe have heard to the point of treating it as a cliché that we should love the sinner and hate the sin, but this is not an obvious move to make. Jesus, however, manifested this sentiment supremely in this moment. This was the undoing of Adam’s sin—Adam’s sin was to stand before his fallen bride, and to choose both her and her sin. Jesus was able to stand before fallen woman, and to choose her and to reject her sin. Of course this was going to confuse watchers, because it is so foreign! We think the only two choices are to reject both the sinner and the sin, or to accept both the sinner and the sin. Jesus chooses the third way, the way of mercy and redemption.
It’s a good thing that Jesus chose as He did, for the sake of all of Israel. ‘Adultery’ is often also a metaphor for when the Chosen People committed idolatry, abandoning their God for the sake of strange gods. Israel herself is brought before Jesus for judgment in this gospel passage, and Jesus is able to reveal to all present that they have all committed idolatry before God, by making themselves the arbiters of right and wrong every time that they’ve sinned. And Jesus still wants Israel. He came to redeem her, to save her from the relationships that only damage her, to rebuild her and to take her as His bride.
How does this relate to us now? I don’t know about you, but I still put myself, and the cares of the world, and other lesser goods, ahead of God. Not only could I not throw a stone in this scenario, I’m often caught in the act of idolatry myself. I’m caught when I seek my own way instead of seeking God’s way. I’m caught in the act of idolatry when I make time for watching shows or listening to podcasts or getting lost in social media before and instead of making time to talk to God. I’m caught in the act of idolatry when I tell God I’m more married to my comfort and convenience than I am to His mission and His loving guidance. I’m just as vulnerable, and just as deserving of justice as the woman in the gospel, and just in need to hear the words of Jesus as He clears the mob and holds off on condemning me and commissions me to go and sin no more.
As we approach Holy Week, it’s good to remember that Jesus chooses the third way, that He wants to choose the third way with us, and that He calls us to live out this third way as we love our neighbors in turn.
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