Gospel for the Fifth Sunday of Lent (7 April 2019)
Gospel Notes by Michael Whelan SM
Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (John 8:1-11 – NRSV)
Raymond Brown calls this “a non-Johannine interpolation” (Raymond E Brown, The Gospel according to John (I–XII): Introduction, translation, and notes (Vol. 29), New Haven; London: Yale University Press, 2008, 332). Brown explains that the account is certainly not part of the original Gospel according to John: “This passage is not found in any of the important early Greek textual witnesses of Eastern provenance (e.g., in neither Bodmer papyrus); nor is it found in the OS or the Coptic. There are no comments on this passage by the Greek writers on John of the 1st Christian millennium, and it is only from ca. 900 that it begins to appear in the standard Greek text. The evidence for the passage as Scripture in the early centuries is confined to the Western Church. It appears in some OL texts of the Gospels. Ambrose and Augustine wanted it read as part of the Gospel, and Jerome included it in the Vulgate” (Raymond E Brown, op cit, 335). However, Brown notes, “There is nothing in the story itself or its language that would forbid us to think of it as an early story concerning Jesus” (Ibid).
Brown notes: “Stylistically, the story is more Lucan than Johannine” (Ibid). Carson agrees: “Several expressions in this verse are typical of Luke-Acts (or in one case of Matthew as well): orthos (‘dawn’) is found in the New Testament elsewhere only in Luke 24:1; Acts 5:21; paraginomai (‘appear’) and laos (‘people’) are common in Luke-Acts, rare in John; and for he sat down to teach them cf. Matthew 5:1–2; Luke 4:20; 5:3. The content of this verse is closely paralleled by Luke 21:38, again referring to the week of Jesus’ passion: ‘and all the people came early in the morning to hear him at the temple’.” (D A Carson, The Gospel according to John, W.B. Eerdmans, 1991, 334.) Carson adds: “(T)here is little reason for doubting that the event here described occurred, even if in its written form it did not in the beginning belong to the canonical books. Similar stories are found in other sources. One of the best known, reported by Papias (and recorded by the historian Eusebius, H.E. III. xxxix. 16), is the account of a woman, accused in the Lord’s presence of many sins (unlike the woman here who is accused of but one). The narrative before us also has a number of parallels (some of them noted below) with stories in the Synoptic Gospels. The reason for its insertion here may have been to illustrate 7:24 and 8:15 or, conceivably, the Jews’ sinfulness over against Jesus’ sinlessness (8:21, 24, 46).” (D A Carson, op cit, 333-34.)
Early in the morning he came again to the temple: It was common practice for scribes to meet with their students in the outer court of the temple. Being a public place, people could join one or other group. Clearly some scribes have joined the disciples – and others – to listen to Jesus. Their interest is not idle curiosity. They want to test Jesus and trip him up. The text is quite explicit about their motivation: “They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him”. “The teachers of the law (lit. ‘scribes’) and the Pharisees are often mentioned together in the Synoptics, but never in the genuine text of John. The scribes were the recognized students and expositors of the law of Moses, but so central was the law in the life and thought of first-century Palestinian Jews that the scribes came to assume something of the roles of lawyer, ethicist, theologian, catechist, and jurist. Most of them, but certainly not all, were Pharisees by conviction (cf. notes on 1:19ff.)” (D A Carson, op cit, 334).
(The scribes and the Pharisees) brought a woman who had been caught in adultery: Where is the man? And how was she “caught in adultery”? A moment’s reflection raises the ugly possibility that this is actually not a point of law at issue but a very blatant attempt simply to trap Jesus. The woman is being used as a pawn. Our compassion for the woman is aroused along with our disgust for the “scribes and Pharisees”. The woman is made to “stand before all of them”. The unfolding drama revolves around her silent – and presumably disheveled – presence. Because of the other presence – the presence of Jesus – her presence becomes an eloquent exposition of a new way of being and as such a condemnation of the scribes and Pharisees.
Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women: In fact Torah is not quite as straightforward in this matter as the scribes and Pharisees are implying. Deuteronomy 22:23-24 is probably the law being invoked: “If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbor’s wife. So you shall purge the evil from your midst.” Leviticus 20:10 prescribes something similar though it makes no mention of stoning: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death”.
Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground: This is a tantalizing and enigmatic sentence. “The truth is that we do not know” what it means. (Cf D A Crason, op cit, 336.) However, the text and the structure of the story do allow us to ask a question: What would such a gesture have meant to the scribes and the Pharisees? At the very least it suggests to the scribes and Pharisees that Jesus is not going to begin to debate the point and fall into their trap. However it is to be interpreted, it has the effect of turning this story in a new direction. In this simple gesture, Jesus takes away the power of the scribes and Pharisees. He is in charge from this moment.
they kept on questioning him: The scribes and the Pharisees do not immediately grasp the fact that they have been defeated. As is typical of angry and obsessive people, they stubbornly persist in their already thwarted endeavor. We might reasonably guess that they were even more angry as they left the scene embarrassed.
he straightened up: Like the gesture of writing on the ground, it seems significant that the Gospel records this detail. Is it of no significance? It seems reasonable to suggest that this movement – accompanied by eye contact – is a deliberate and unmistakable re-engagement with the people who have lined up against him as his adversaries. “You don’t get it? Alright, “let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her”. Jesus may be recalling Torah again here. In Leviticus 24:1-16 it is prescribed that the witnesses to the crime must begin the process of carrying out the execution: “Take the blasphemer outside the camp; and let all who were within hearing lay their hands on his head, and let the whole congregation stone him”. See also Deuteronomy 13:9 and 17:7. Jesus exposes the double standard at work here: The men bring in the woman caught in the act of adultery but not the man – presumably he was present at the scene of the crime! Maybe he is in the crowd now? “Many manuscripts specifically say that the accusers were ‘convicted by their own conscience’ (AV), but their stunned departure testifies as much. Those who had come to shame Jesus now leave in shame.” (D A Carson, op cit, 336).
once again he bent down and wrote on the ground: Here is the third of the enigmatic gestures – he bent down and began writing, he straightened up, he bent down and began writing again. In other words “If you did not get it the first time, I’ll do it again!” These gestures suggest Jesus does not fear his adversaries. He gives them no quarter. Yet he must know that they are plotting against him and that they are capable of doing him harm. Jesus not only holds the power in this jousting match, he is also making it clear that he has authority to do something new. In particular, he has the authority of God to forgive sin – see also Matthew 9:1-8. Jesus’ authority to teach and forgive sins is clearly an issue for the religious leaders here and throughout the Gospels. In John it emerges with frequent references to “the Jews” in a pejorative way. We see it also in the synoptics. For example: Mark 2:1-12 (the cure of the paralytic and the forgiveness of his sins); Mark 6:1-6 (Jesus returns to his home town where the local people question his authority); Mark 11:27-33 (the chief priests, the scribes and the elders confront Jesus in the temple); Luke 4:32 (they were amazed at his teaching because he spoke with authority – see also Matthew 7:29); Mark 2:23-3:6 (the disciples picking corn on the Sabbath and the cure of the man with the withered hand – also Luke 6:1-11 & Matthew 12:1-14). Jesus’ authority is the source of the community’s authority after Jesus has gone – see for example John 20:22-23
Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.”: Here is the fourth of those enigmatic gestures – “he straightened up”. These gestures move the drama from a focus on law to a focus on grace, from threat to promise: Under the law, represented by the scribes and Pharisees, there is threat for both the woman and for Jesus; under grace, represented by Jesus Christ, there is promise, giving context for a more expansive and nuanced human response.
In today’s Gospel – John 8:1-11 – we are given a stark image of loneliness. The scribes and the Pharisees do their best to isolate Jesus and trap him. They use a poor, unsuspecting woman as a decoy. Spare a thought for that woman. What would it have been like for her, dragged before the crowd by men who “caught her in the act of adultery”? (Was she set up?) At the very least she would have felt desperately alone.
We are inherently relational beings and there is a deep and primitive urge in us all to belong to a group. If that desire to belong meets indifference or apathy or – worse still – rejection, mockery and insults, we are driven painfully up against a most uncomfortable reality: To be is ultimately to be alone. When our desire to belong is met with care, concern, affirmation, compassion, hospitality and the like, we generally can manage to deal well enough with the aloneness. It is still painful. No one can take away that aloneness. And the loneliness that surfaces when we awaken to our aloneness, can be haunting and deeply painful. A simple French woman writes in her journal from that place of pain: “During those frightful years I remained alone, face to face with myself, with no one in whom to confide. Who, for that matter, can ever penetrate – friend or priest – to the secret place where doubt, that dark form of adoration, approaches the Infinite with trembling?" (Marie Noёl, Notes for Myself, translated by Howard Sutton, New York: Cornell University Press, 1968, 6).
Marie Noёl suggests an insight into the scene of the lonely figure standing, humiliated, before the crowd. She is not only in the midst of those who have told her in no uncertain terms that she does not belong. In fact, they confront her with the prospect of death by stoning. The Gospel tells us simply that there is present someone who does not reject her: “Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him”. The loneliness of the nameless woman is given a new meaning. There is no suggestion that Jesus takes away the loneliness. He lets her know though, that he has become part of her human world in all its pain and doubt and confusion. His presence in this fraught and grubby environment reminds the lady of the great promise: “I am with you!” – see Exodus 3:1-15.
So much of human behaviour – especially conflicted and aggressive behaviour – is shaped by pain. To be born is to be in pain. There is no escaping it. Though, some of us have the inherent pain of existence intensified by the life’s experiences – most notably by the bad behaviour of other people, like the lady in today’s Gospel. Whatever the level of pain, we all have to address the question: “What do I do with my pain?”. Transform it or transmit it! The presence of Jesus with the lady – and with each of us – offers us the way of transformation.