Let the Scriptures Speak
Stunning the Stoners
Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
see, I am doing something new! (First Reading)
How does it happen that a group of men catch a woman “in the very act” of committing adultery, and only the woman is apprehended? What happened to her partner? Was he too fast for the witnesses? Already the scenario is suspect. And if the scribes and Pharisees are bent on justice, why do they bring the alleged adulteress to Jesus rather than to one of their legal officials? They refer to the fact that the Law of Moses mandates the death penalty in such a case and ask what Jesus has to say. Has Jesus developed the reputation of being “soft” on offenders and they hope to catch him in violation of the Torah by pleading for her pardon?
The Evangelist says, “They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him.” What is the test? If, as some scholars think, the Roman government had taken from the Sanhedrin the right of capital punishment, then Jesus' questioners may think they are putting Jesus in a no-win situation. On the one hand, if he advocates stoning, he puts himself at odds with the Roman officials, who no longer permit such activity. On the other hand, if he advocates that she not be stoned, he would appear to deny the law of Moses and thereby put himself in a bad light with Jewish officials.
Jesus refuses to play his adversaries’ game. Instead, he proceeds to do that famously enigmatic writing on the ground. It is attractive to think that Jesus' gesture may be an allusion to Jeremiah 17:13: “Those who turn away from thee shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water”—but that is simply one guess among many possibilities. What the narrative makes clear is that Jesus refuses to be lured into their trap. When they continue to press him, Jesus says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Is Jesus suggesting that the criminal law and legal punishment can only be administered by sinless people? That would be a remarkably unrealistic proposal. And such an abstract principle hardly seems to be the issue here. Is not the point, rather, that the Pharisees' present activity of manipulating this woman and setting up a “sting operation” for Jesus is itself sinful behavior? Appearing to be seekers after law and order, they are exposed as hypocrites simply bent on protecting their own power. Jesus' delay tactic of scribbling on the ground has allowed some time for this reality to sink in. One by one, the accusers depart, leaving Jesus alone with the accused.
In words that suggest that he is savoring the irony of the situation, Jesus says, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she says. Then Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” What delicacy. As every preacher has observed, Jesus forgives the sinner without denying the sin. Mercy invites conversion.
The readings from Isaiah and Paul help us savor more deeply what we witness in this encounter between Jesus, his testers, and the woman. Even though the passage from Second Isaiah was, first of all, addressed to the refugees in Babylon and speaks of the good news of their freedom to journey home to Judah under the liberation of Cyrus, the words have come to mean much more. First Jews, then Christians, came to read these words, like most of Isaiah 40-55, as descriptions on the messianic times. The Church applies to the new Exodus of incarnation and redemption in Jesus the words, “See, I am doing something new!” And we dare to hear as addressed to ourselves the words, “the people whom I formed for myself, that they might announce my praise.”
Paul, writing to the Philippians about the legalistic teachers who would impose the fullness of Jewish tradition and practice upon Christian Gentiles, insists on the newness that faith in Jesus has brought into his life as a keeper of the Torah. We have no reason to suspect that Paul denigrates the Law or his own Jewishness; it is simply that he finds in Jesus such an illumination of the Law and the Prophets that he has come to know that his relationship with God comes from God and not from his own achievement. Like the woman caught in adultery, Paul has discovered himself on the receiving end of a divine love that enables him to live the law in love.
Although Jesus makes no general commentary on the death penalty in today's passage, the “something new” that he brought into the world has led the Church in our day to seriously challenge capital punishment—whether by stoning, hanging, gas, poison, or electric shock—as a moral means for pursuing justice and protecting the common good.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University