This year we are reading the gospel of Saint Luke. How come today’s liturgy makes us read a passage from John’s gospel? We must say that the story of the adulteress is a very unusual passage: we now find it in John, but it is missing from all early manuscripts of this gospel; while it is present in some manuscripts of Luke’s gospel. Actually, the style and the motifs of this account are more similar to those of Luke than to those of John. Maybe for this reason the liturgy has chosen it as the last of the three texts about conversion that we are reading during this Lent.
The scribes and the Pharisees put Jesus to the test. They bring him this woman caught in adultery and remind him of Moses’ law, according to which adulterous women should be stoned. That is not entirely true, because the law commanded to put to death not only the woman but both the adulterer and the adulteress. But, we know, women are usually those who pay both for their own and for men’s mistakes. We do not know if in Jesus’ times the Jews still had the power to execute those sentenced to death. If you remember, during Jesus’ trial, when Pilate said to the crowd: “Take him yourselves, and judge him according to your law,” the Jews answered: “We do not have the right to execute anyone.” On the other hand, though, we find in the Acts of the Apostles that the Jews stoned Stephen without any permission from the Romans. Anyway, if the Jews had been deprived of the right to carry out the death penalty, you see that the trap the scribes and the Pharisees set for Jesus is very similar to the one that they had laid for him when they asked him if it was lawful to pay the tribute to Caesar or not. So, in this case, if Jesus answers that the adulteress is not to be stoned, he goes against Moses; if he answers that she is to be stoned, he could be reported to the Roman authorities for subversion.
Jesus does not fall into the trap. He first tries to disregard the question, and starts to write on the ground with his finger. Somebody produces this text as evidence that Jesus knew how to write; but this is not the point. Others wonder what Jesus was writing. A lot of hypotheses have been formulated. One is interesting, because we find it in a variant of the gospel text: “He wrote on the ground the sins of each of them.” But even in this case it is better not to ask such questions and be content with what the gospel actually says. Since the scribes and the Pharisees keep on asking him, Jesus is forced to answer. And he does it in his own way: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” He thus escapes the trap: he does not reject Moses’ law; he just asks who of them is in a position to carry out that law. So, he unmasks their hypocrisy, and they are forced to desist.
Up to now the adulteress had remained there, in the middle, without saying a word. Nobody cared about her. She was just an instrument used by the scribes and the Pharisees to ensnare Jesus. Now she remains alone with Jesus; and now she becomes a person. Jesus does not demand a public confession: her sin is already public. He knows what is in her heart; there is no need of showing it outwardly. For the woman it is enough to be in front of Jesus: his presence is sufficient to heal her. Before Jesus, sin melts like snow at the rays of the sun. There is just need of a warning: “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.” Sin is always in ambush, and we can relapse into it. We should be always watchful so as to avoid it.
For Jesus it is important to add that invitation after saying: “I do not condemn you.” It is true: he has not come to condemn the world but to save the world. But this does not mean that there is no sin; that we can freely sin without qualms, because we will be eventually forgiven, regardless of our repentance. Sin exists; it is a serious thing, and we have to take it seriously. We have to be afraid of it, because it could kill us; but without despairing, because there is One who can free us from it. We must be confident in his mercy, but we cannot fool him: to merit his compassion, we have to show him our detachment from sin. Weak as we are, we can relapse into sin, but always acknowledging our sinfulness and confessing our need for his mercy.