5th Sunday of Lent, Year C (2022): Jn 8:1-11
Sunday, April 3, 2022
Homily Notes for the 5th Sunday of Lent, Year C (Jn 8:1-11)
· Why did Jesus write on the ground when confronted by those who wanted to stone the woman caught in adultery?
· The scene was among the tensest and explosive in the Gospels. The scribes and pharisees had set their trap, seeing if Jesus would demand the full extent of the Law in condemning the woman to death or would he let her go and be accused of lawlessness?
· His disciples and the crowd likely held their collective breath to see how he would respond, knowing either outcome would have serious consequences. The woman was caught in dread in facing execution or hoping against hope that Jesus would intercede on her behalf.
· With all this tension present and what does Jesus do? He starts writing in the ground, saying nothing!
· So why did he begin to write, in fact, he actually wrote twice in this scene, and does it have any significance to what would unfold?
· Three interpretations have emerged throughout the ages and I am indebted to the scholarship of Prof Brant Pitre for the following explanation:
· The first is that it is a sign of his indifference to the accusations of the scribes and pharisees and so by ignoring them he is showing that he will not give them any sense of authority over him and is also undermining their influence over the people. This interpretation has some credibility to it but has not received much support over the centuries.
· The second is that he was writing out the list of sins of all those who were accusing the woman of adultery and demanding justice be exacted upon her. This interpretation is attributed to the great biblical scholar St. Jerome in the 3rd century AD. This interpretation received a fair bit of support through the ages and was one commonly suggested by homilists as to why the scribes pharisees eventually dropped their stones and walked away as they saw in plain sight that Jesus was able to read their hearts and know their sins and seeing as none of them were sinless, they were unable to cast stones without being seen as hypocrites.
· The third and most popular explanation, though often unknown among the Catholic faithful, comes from the writings of St. Ambrose and St. Augustine 3rd-4th centuries AD.
· They suggested that the writing in the sand was the fulfillment of a prophecy from Jeremiah 17, verses 1 and 13.
· At Jer 17:1, we read that “the sin of Judah is written with a pen of iron.” Then at Jer 17:13, it reads “O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you shall be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water.”
· When Jeremiah offered this prophecy, he was describing that the names of those who forsook the God of Israel would be written in the dirt as a sign of condemnation and warning, a sign of judgement upon them, because they had forsaken the fountain of living water, which was another way of speaking about God as the source of all blessings.
· In light of this OT prophecy, Jesus had at John 7, one chapter before this scene, called himself the fountain of living water, and so here he is saying to the scribes and pharisees, the religious leaders of the day, that because you have rejected me and the rivers of living spiritual water I wish to give to the world, that Jesus writes their names on the ground a sign of judgement on them for having rejected him and for the sins they had committed which was leading them to pull people away from Jesus.
· The scribes and pharisees, who knew the scriptures by heart, realized that Jesus was accusing them of being the very leaders that Jeremiah had prophesied about centuries before.
· After being challenged to stone the woman, if they were indeed sinless, when before them in writing is the judgment that they had indeed sinned by rejecting Jesus, the font of living water, they knew they must walk away. Jesus had alluded their trap and now it remains for Jesus to decide what to say to the woman before him.
· Now some have suggested Jesus broke the Law of his people which at Deuteronomy 22 says quite clearly she should be stoned to death. Yet at Deuteronomy 17:6 it says that “no one shall be put to death on the testimony of just one witness” as 2 or 3 witness were needed as the bear minimum for any judgment to be accepted and exacted.
· Beautifully, Jesus has removed all witnesses from the scene so that only she and he remain, hence why he said “has no one condemned you?” knowing that everyone had departed. Jesus knew he would be breaking the Law He and his heavenly Father had given to Moses, a law he would never break, if he picked up a stone to condemn her to death.
· His intention was never to kill but to restore this woman to the life of grace. He will not condemn her both on account of being faithful to the Law of Moses and the depth of His divine mercy that does not want to see any sinner perish, but to be forgiven and admonished to leave behind the life of sin and abide in the life of grace.
· And so that writing in the dirt long ago continues to have great significance to us today. It is a reminder that like the pharisees and scribes, our Lord will often write out our sins before us, especially when he speaks to our consciences and helps us see where we might be condemning others while we are guilty of our own transgressions before God.
· It is also a powerful reminder of how our Lord wants to encounter everyone who falls into sin, not by condemning them, but forgiving them, but with the clear expectation they they will not return to those sins, least they make a mockery of the Lord’s mercy.