The famous story of the woman caught in adultery is a curious tale. Even as the story’s central figure is this adulteress, the point of it doesn’t concern her. The story’s not about her at all, but about those who bring her to Jesus; and by extension it’s about those who respond to the problem of sin in our world; not by seeking to actually address it effectively, but who use it for their own advantage, to gain power over others. And if an economy of sin is the source of your power, then in his message of mercy and forgiveness, in his offer of grace and healing so as to escape and recover from sin, Jesus is a threat.
We as Christians have to be about forgiveness and healing; and that is not to say that sin is something we can ignore because we don’t want people to feel bad – if they are caught in their sins, trust me, they already feel bad. They may lead a life of distraction, even degeneracy, doubling down on their sins in a perverse kind of spiritual self-medicating to escape the suffering; but they only compound it. Sin is still the problem.
Jesus is consistent throughout his teaching about the danger of sin, the reality of hell. Sin kills the spirit and consigns the soul to damnation. Grace heals the wound of sin if the sinner, like a good patient listening to his physician, taking the medicine, following the treatment, accepts this free gift from God.
Were the story really about the woman caught in adultery, it would unfold very differently.
For one, the conversation is not between her and Jesus as we find in the famous story of the Samaritan woman at the well. That woman we know to be a sinner; and that story is about her encounter with Jesus. In today’s gospel, we can only imagine the adulteress standing in the midst of the crowd saying nothing while Jesus is pestered by the scribes and the pharisees. She is never heard to ask for mercy, for forgiveness. When this whole episode is over, Jesus simply dismisses her and tells her to “sin no more.”
The story isn’t really about Jesus. We can compare this story to the one about the paralyzed man who is lowered through the roof of the house Jesus is staying in. Remember that one? He tells the man his sins are forgiven and the scribes and pharisees who witness that all have the same thought at the same time: “who is he to forgive sins?” That story was about establishing Jesus’ authority. The controversy in this instance isn’t that, there is no dispute about authority.
Rather, this episode from the gospels is about hypocrisy, and the recurring fashion among human beings to present themselves as servants of society here to eradicate evil when really, they are being self-serving and using a very real problem to have power over others rather than to solve the problem.
And here in this gospel passage we see people who’ve clearly been threatened by Jesus’ message of mercy and forgiveness; and so, they’ve engineered this. We know they are testing him. They want to discredit him.
The text says that she is an adulterer. So, we know that the charge is true; and it is said that she was caught in the very act of adultery. However, that they caught her “in the very act” is suspicious. Were these Pharisees on the lookout for just a person such as she, looking to catch her, not for the sake of eradicating sin, not for the sake of the spiritual health of the community, but really, it’s all about Jesus and trapping him. And so, they are victimizing her. And yes, a sinner can be victimized. Being a sinner doesn’t mean you don’t deserve to be treated justly. God will treat you justly, according to justice. That’s why we should all be concerned about sin. We’re going to get what we deserve.
This case is presented to Jesus as “open and shut.” We don’t need to investigate the charge – she is guilty. So, she’s brought to Jesus for him to pronounce sentence.
This smacks of another famous attempt to trap him: the time he is asked if Jews should pay taxes to the Romans. He asks for a coin, indicates that it has the emperor’s face and then says, render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s, unto God what is God’s. His interlocutors are playing politics.
The not-so-subtle accusation Jesus makes toward those who appear to advocate stoning to death the woman is that they aren’t serious about dealing with sin, but are simply playing politics. They’re looking to trap him, not help resolve a serious problem that plagues individuals and society. He knows they are sinners; let the one without sin be the first to cast a stone.
In ancient societies sin was perceived as a very serious problem; and I’d say it’s seen as a problem in today’s society.
Now it is a matter of what is considered a sin. In the ancient world sexual sins were seen as being very corrosive of the social fabric. Adultery is the only sin that is part of the ten commandments, the one about not coveting your neighbour’s wife. The most famous story outside the Bible is Homer’s Iliad – the epic tale of the Trojan war fought because the Trojan prince Paris stole another man’s wife.
So, putting to Jesus a case involving adultery is to raise emotions and strong opinions among onlookers. Even today most have very negative opinions of people who fool around on their spouses. However, to be frank, given the kind of celebrity gossip culture we have, adultery in the secular world is now of a venial order; not seen as the worst thing.
Yet there are great sins within modern ideology; they’re not biblical, they’re not from the Judeo-Christian tradition, but the thought crimes of today are being treated like the sins against the biblical moral code were in bygone days.
Now the modern sins are many and changing, and we see them condemned in our media all the time. They usually involve expressing, or even thinking certain thoughts. For example, in the minds of some, it is a sin to use the incorrect pronouns for those who’ve invested their identity in such things. We have seen how in some quarters it is a sin to question certain experts or raise concerns about public questions that touch on the environment or foreign policy, and so on. That once a matter is considered settled by our cultural and political leadership, it can never be reopened for discussion even if evidence comes to light that would make it prudent and responsible to do so.
In our formerly “liberal” and “open” society, we’re seeing closed-mindedness raised up as a virtue, provided the mind has been shut once the subject has been properly indoctrinated.
I meet with people who speak to me about how they find themselves “walking on eggshells” as they come to see that almost every day they are being “tested” by others to see if they hold acceptable opinions; and how they fear that an honest answer will see them socially ostracized, even fired from their jobs.
The other great fear is to be put through the humiliation of being forced to make a public apology. Of course, these forced apologies are at heart insincere, compelled as they are by a threat of social cancellation, job loss, etc. But even when offered with as much authenticity as one can muster, no one is ever really forgiven. The humiliation persists in being forever under suspicion.
All this is being done in the name of social justice, equity, tolerance, diversity. Yet the results are objectively unjust, iniquitous, divisive and an imposition of stultifying uniformity. Seeing this, one must ask what the champions of this new regime are really about.
As Jesus has said elsewhere of the scribes and pharisees, they load burdens onto people, but do nothing to really help them. People sin, but atop the weight of these offenses against God and neighbour, they added the burden of fear of condemnation, social isolation, and death.
Jesus never dismisses sin as a problem. He constantly speaks of its dangers, how it opens the gates of hell to us; how we need to repent and turn to our loving father in heaven for forgiveness.
We certainly know there are problems in our society today, the legacy of humanity’s history of, well, sin. The remedy is not to be found in the murder of people’s reputations, the cancelling of their social lives, the depriving of their livings.
It is understood in the Catholic faith that sin is more than a legal infraction, more than simply breaking a rule. In spiritual terms, it is analogous to a toxin, it can be likened to a disease; and indeed, it can be a contagious one.
And that does come from ancient wisdom. The leper and the sinner were one and the same in a sense. But where ancient peoples had no good remedy, we have the cure. And where leprosy was not understood and its victims condemned to perpetual quarantine, where the sinner was encouraged more to conceal his sin in misery than seek remedy, today we know there are medicines to treat the leprous, medicinal grace to salve and heal the ailing soul.
Authoritarian and totalitarian regimes deal with such things with cruel singular solutions; sometimes as crude as rounding up the infected and killing them as a way to stop the spread. I’ve mentioned in past homilies the gulag of the former Soviet Union meant to deal with the crime of thinking contrary to the regime’s project of bringing paradise to the earth. They worked people to death.
I was instructed in the art of the confessor that while sin is a universal problem, like any good physician, the cure is individualized. And sin is not the source of my power. It is not for me to “lord it over” the penitent. Rather, it is for both of us to turn to the divine physician and listen to his prescription for what ails us both as individual persons and as members of the human race. To listen to him unceasingly, so that even as we might continue to be afflicted by sin, no more will it have power over us. No more will it give power to others over us, for we, even as we might fall short of the glory of God, we still belong to him.