In a week that was filled with more than the usual quota of shaming and blaming, today’s gospel comes as a welcome relief. Some things don’t change much, except that today the threatened stoning is usually more verbal than lethal and conveyed through social media. But the end result is similar: the denigration of human dignity by a lopsided exercise of power, frequently and most likely political power. It was that even in Jesus’ day. The woman caught in adultery was a hapless pawn in a ruthless ploy that might have resulted in her death. In recent times, whole populations can be caught up in such awful maneuvers – whether for religious or ethnic reasons, like the Rohingya people of Myanmar, desperate asylum-seekers fleeing the violence and crime of Central American countries, or defenseless black congregations in the American south. Scorning and defaming the innocent and helpless cries out to heaven for redress. And it will come.
The death penalty for adultery is mentioned in Leviticus 20:10, where it is stipulated that both parties were liable to suffer death, although stoning, the usual
method of execution, is not mentioned. Whether it was carried out, even rarely, is unknown. What seems evident in this case is that the other party, the male, has been let off, perhaps by paying a penalty price, which seems to have been possible for those with the means. That much hasn’t changed greatly, either.
Jesus knows full well that a trap has been set and easily evades it by exposing the hypocrisy of the leaders of the crowd, all of whom slink away. This is a story of mercy and forgiveness, of deliverance, but it might well be noted that Jesus refuses to add to the woman’s considerable shame. Just the opposite, and something we could all benefit from imitating when tempted to blame the victims.
Deliverance is the theme of the other scriptural readings as well, one carefully chosen for this Fifth Sunday of Lent. Isaiah rhapsodizes over the generous mercy of God, who prepares a path in the wilderness for the people, an image of the Exodus, but something new — and redemptive. But this is not because anyone has earned deliverance, it is because God is compassionate and especially merciful.
In his letter to the Christians at Philippi, Paul reminds them that righteousness comes through faith not observance of the law. His—and our – deliverance arises from conformity to the death of the innocent Christ so as to share in his resurrection, the underlying Lenten motif of all our readings.
Returning to the account of Jesus’ saving the woman in John’s gospel, his gentle postscript is worth recalling: “Go, and sin no more.” Prior to this cautionary advice, what he says is perhaps more important for us as Lent draws to its climax: “Neither do I condemn you.”