One of my favorite gospel stories concerns the woman caught in adultery who was dragged by a crowd of righteous people to Jesus for judgment. The story, which appears only in the Gospel of John (8:3–11), teaches a valuable lesson: Jesus identifies not with the action or the sin of the woman that brought her to this point of judgment, but with her pain, embarrassment, and suffering. He’s concerned with how the woman feels; he seems completely unconcerned with anything else.
The woman accepts his compassion and acceptance, slowly coming to a deeper and more profound understanding that Jesus is associating himself with her in a way even more profound and intimate than that of the man (who, by the way, is nowhere around) with whom she committed the adultery.
She didn’t find commitment and intimacy in her illicit action, but she does find it in her encounter with the Lord. He identifies with her, fills her, and gives her life without demanding anything of her but a free-will response to never allow herself to be used by another—and then he sets her free.
Jesus doesn’t lecture her about the sixth commandment. He doesn’t tell her how much she has hurt her family or how terrible sexual sin is. He doesn’t even give her a penance. He simply tells her to avoid this sin, to avoid getting herself into a position where she settles for something that isn’t truly intimate and that isn’t a celebration of her goodness. She should seek moments and relationships that will lead her to life instead of to more shame and embarrassment.
This story is a continuing source of reflection for me because Jesus acts in a totally unexpected manner. He doesn’t act like a man in a patriarchal society would be expected to act. He doesn’t act like a man who has total power over women. In this story, Jesus abuses the power he traditionally has over the woman. He chooses not to be powerful, but to be merciful. He chooses not to be righteous, but to be accepting. He chooses not to preach or teach or make a point, but to simply love.
And by abusing his power, by not seizing the moment to make a point about sexuality, sin, and people caught in their sin, he demonstrates the heart of God—the patience of the Father and the understanding and forgiveness offered to us by the Son through the power of the Spirit.
The early Christian community understood the power of this story—which is not simply about an adulterous woman. It’s also a powerful indictment of people prone to judge, of people caught up in the rush to exact justice for perceived faults and failings, and of people unwilling or unable to see themselves in another who has been exposed.
The early Christian community also understood this story to proclaim an intimate God, a God who puts people and their feelings above the law and the expectations of others, a God who ultimately loves, forgives, and consistently calls us not to death, but to life—life now and life to come. As such, it’s a story about a relationship so much bigger than that of one man and one woman.
Most people-centered stories of Jesus in the gospel are about relationship, intimacy, forgiveness, and mercy. They’re about becoming whole, integrated, and filled with life. None of Jesus’ stories are about righteousness, judgment, sin, and punishment. We might hear the stories recast that way, but that isn’t how they were intended.
Jesus’ stories invite people to come into the light. His stories invite people to escape the darkness, to move from the part of themselves that is dead to the experience of risen life. When these stories are told in a way that provokes a response other than life, it’s a disservice to the gospel and to the kingdom of God.
Do you really think the adulterous woman in this story left her encounter with Jesus thinking she had been forgiven of her sin? If you do, you don’t really know much about sin—and you know and understand even less about relationship and what gives life and celebrates grace.
Get out of your head and out of the rule books and all the dogma that fill life more and more each day. Let the story stir in your heart, not in your head, and you’ll know the intimacy of a loving God and Father. Even more, just like this woman, you will feel and know the truth of what it means to be truly loved. It’s the gift of Jesus for you today just as it was the gift of Jesus for that woman so many years ago.
In this Year of Mercy we’re invited as God’s people to reflect on the core values proclaimed in the gospel. It’s much too easy to miss the spirit and the energy of God’s grace because we’re distracted by the rules and the regulations of our religious tradition. Rules and regulations have their place—I’d be the last person to counsel that they should be routinely ignored (especially not to the members of SA).
That being said, it’s helpful to try to understand the deeper meaning of the gospel stories our brothers and sisters preserved for us. Ask for the grace to believe what Jesus is trying to teach us—and then ask for the deeper grace to apply his teaching to your life and your struggles.
by Fr. Thomas M. Santa, CSsR