THE FIFTH SUNDAY OF LENT
“Neither do I condemn you.” 8:11
Today’s gospel is a story about a trial.
Trials mesmerize us. We love reading about them in murder mysteries. We love watching them in movies like To Kill A Mocking Bird.
We even love creating trials in our own minds – with ourselves as the judge pronouncing “guilty” against someone who has hurt us.
One of the most spellbinding trials of our time involved OJ Simpson. It had everything: a star black football player, his beautiful white wife, the lifestyle of the rich and famous, OJ’s attempted escape in his Bronco, the constant TV coverage, the flawed police involvement, the legal pranks, the race issues. It even featured some poetry of sorts: “If it does not fit; you must acquit.”
I was reminded of this particular trial because it’s now being featured in a new dramatization on television. And once again, I find myself riveted by it – even though I know the outcome.
The same is true about the trial in today’s gospel.
It too is mesmerizing and spellbinding – even though we know the outcome; even though we’ve read about it and heard about it countless times; and even though it contains some of the most famous words ever rendered in any trial: “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.”
I remember so well the first time I ever really heard this story. I must have been in the eighth grade, or around that age. My parents took me and a couple of siblings to some friend’s home who owned a TV – something we did not have at that time. The reason for our venture was to watch Bishop Sheen. Every Tuesday night in those days we made this same journey.
But this night was different – so much so that I remember it to this day. Bishop Sheen told a story that night that was unforgettable. It was the story of a woman caught in adultery. For an eighth grade kid, especially in those days, that was pretty wild stuff!!
The trial in today’s gospel had the necessary intriguing characters: a crowd of people who Jesus was teaching in the temple; a group of men who were intent on embarrassing Jesus; and a woman who was “caught in the very act of committing adultery.”
It quickly becomes clear in this trial that the men are not so much interested in the fate of the woman as they are in becoming the judge and jury condemning Jesus as a fraud. They want the crowd of people following Jesus to see that if Jesus does not follow the Law of Moses, then he’s not the man of God they believe him to be. On the other hand, if Jesus goes along with them and condemns this woman, then he’s cruel and unforgiving.
Jesus is caught in a conundrum. He either disobeys the Jewish Law or he exposes himself to be someone who is no better than these men.
So what does Jesus say to the “scribes and Pharisees” who are putting him on the spot? Jesus says nothing. He remains silent.
But then something unusual happens: Jesus begins writing in the sand with a stick. What was he writing? The accusers had to start coming close to see for themselves.
This is where Bishop Sheen becomes very dramatic. And this is what I remember so well:
He suggests that what Jesus was writing were the major sins of each of the men judging him and the woman: Theft. Lust. Rage.
The accusers were at first most likely stunned by this. Jesus is focusing on them, not the woman. And so in an attempt to get the attention back on her, they “continued asking him.”
This is where Jesus speaks the words that have echoed down the centuries to our ears right now: the words that challenge not only those few men long ago, but each of us to this day – words that condemn us any time we become judge and jury – words that shame us any time we act out of rage – words that call us to remember our own faults any time we presume to prove someone else wrong and point the finger of self-righteousness. “Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone.”
The gospel then tells us that Jesus returned to writing in the sand.
Greed. Pride. Gluttony. More lust.
What Jesus is pictured as doing in this classic trial scene was sheer genius. He did not betray the Law of Moses, like his accusers hoped he would. But, at the same time, Jesus embraced mercy – an unwarranted, underserved gift.
The gospel then tells us that “they went away one by one, beginning with the elders.”
Unlike the OJ Simpson trial, this one ends very quietly, and very movingly. Not only the accusers, but all the people have left the scene. Jesus and the woman are now alone – just the two of them.
The tenderness of this last scene of the trial is unparalleled.
Just the two of them. Just the woman and the Savior – the One who rescues, who lifts burdens, who removes sins, who unties bonds, who releases past enslavements, who heals wounds – the Savior whose last words to her presumably make a permanent home in her heart: “Neither do I condemn you.”
What is so breathtaking, though, is that those same words are meant for each one of us. “Neither do I condemn you.”
There’s a catch, though: those same words are also meant to be spoken by each one of us, not just heard. We are to go and do the same in our lives – release others from our rule of condemnation; release others from the bondage of our judgment; release others from the jury of our heart that wants to pronounce those most damaging of words: “guilty as charged.”
Fortunately, in this Jubilee Year of Mercy, we are reminded that we have two great sacraments that can assist each of us in re-creating in our own lives this unparalleled example of love and mercy: the Eucharist and Reconciliation.
In the one, after we come together and confess our sinfulness and our need for God’s mercy in each of our lives, we are fed the Word and the Body and Blood of Jesus. This combination gives us the strength and the energy to go out and live what we proclaim, to mimic God’s own mercy toward each of us. In the sacrament of Reconciliation, we have the opportunity to go the representative of Christ and the Church and do two things: name the demons in our life in detail, and hear the words that can lift us up and grant each of us the same feeling of exhilaration that the woman in today’s gospel felt: “I absolve you.”
The freedom that woman experienced so long ago can be ours today. Because both sacraments tell us of Jesus’ great promise – a promise unlike any other: “Neither do I condemn you.”
Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.