5th Sunday of Lent

Today’s Gospel presents us with a rather complex scene.  It was a very clever trap that the Scribes and the Pharisees set for Jesus by bringing the adulterous women before Him and asking Him what they should do with her.  We might not pick up on how treacherous this trap is if we don’t understand the historical background in which this event took place.

The reason that the Pharisees brought this woman to Jesus was not because they wanted a good legal decision or because they respected His opinion.  The Pharisees hated Jesus and they were trying desperately to trap Him in His words so that they could discredit Him before the crowd or get Him put to death.  The Pharisees brought this particular case before Him because they knew that it would put Him between a rock and a hard place, so to speak.

According to the Law of Moses, a woman caught in adultery was to be put to death by stoning: there was no question that that is what the Law of Moses required.  We also have to remember that during Jesus’ time the Romans occupied Israel: the Jewish people were under Roman rule and the Roman laws forbid the Jews from putting anyone to death.  Just think of the end of the Gospel: the Pharisees take Jesus before Pilate because they claimed that according to Jewish law He deserved to die, but they were not allowed to enforce the death sentence; they had to bring Jesus before the Romans to obtain the death sentence that they wanted.

With that background in mind, we can begin to see the difficult position the Pharisees have put Jesus into with the case that we have heard about in the Gospel today.  The Pharisees probably thought that they had finally trapped Jesus.  If He said that they should follow the Law of Moses and stone the woman, then He would have been encouraging them to violate the Roman law and the Pharisees could have handed Jesus over to the Roman authorities for encouraging others to ignore the Roman laws.  If Jesus instructed them not to stone the woman, then the Pharisees thought that they could accuse Him of contradicting the Law of Moses and then He would lose credibility with the Jewish crowds who followed Him.  They crowds would have viewed Him as a sellout to the Romans.  The Pharisees seemed to have backed Our Lord into a corner.

Jesus didn’t answer the question right away; instead, He bent down and began to write on the ground with His finger.  I have heard many theories about what it was that Jesus wrote in the sand.  Ultimately, I think the only answer we can give is that we are simply not sure what He wrote.  The way that Jesus escaped from the trap, however, was an act of sheer genius.  Jesus turned the trap back on the ones who set it.

Again, we need to get a little background to understand what Jesus did.  The Pharisees were the religious leaders of the day and they were very prideful people.  They loved the places of honor, they loved to be seen praying in public, and (if we look at other places in the Gospel) they didn’t see themselves as sinners.  The Gospels tell us that the Pharisees were often scandalized because Jesus ate with sinners.  This implies that they did not hold themselves to be sinners.  In Luke’s Gospel, Jesus even told a story about a tax collector and a Pharisee going to the Temple to pray.  The tax collector wouldn’t look up to Heaven, but stayed in the back begging God for mercy; the Pharisee stood up and thanked God that he was not sinful like the rest of humanity and then went on to boast about how often he fasted.  (cf. Luke 18:9-14)

Keeping this attitude of the Pharisees in mind, let us look at what Jesus said to them in today’s Gospel: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”  The trap was turned back upon the Pharisees.  If they maintained that they were without sin, as we have seen they tended to do, then they would throw their stones at the woman and would themselves be guilty of breaking Roman law and would be punished by the Romans as criminals.  If they chose to avoid breaking the Roman law by not throwing stones, they would be admitting their own sinfulness.  Once they realized that the trap that they had set was turned against them, the Pharisees dropped their stones and went away, leaving the woman and Jesus alone.

Jesus was without sin, but He did not condemn the woman.  Jesus came to bring mercy and forgiveness to all of us.  He died to save us from sin and death.  There isn’t any sin that we can commit that Jesus would not forgive us for, if we only approach Him and ask for His mercy.  He gave us the Sacrament of Reconciliation so that our sins could be washed away by His grace.  Jesus does ask us to go and sin no more, just as He told the woman in today’s Gospel.  When we come to confession, we are supposed to have the intention of at least trying to do better.  As often as we fall, we know that we can come back to Jesus and He will freely extend His mercy.  We also know how unhappy sin makes us, and how it offends Our Lord, and so we should do our best to avoid sin and the occasions that lead us into sin.

This whole season of Lent has been given to us as an opportunity to examine our lives and turn away from sin.  During these forty days of Lent, it is good for us to reflect on our actions and on our habits so that we come to recognize the things in our hearts that we need to change.  Let us use this season to work on rooting sin out of our lives so that we can live in the true freedom of the sons and daughters of God.  We were made to be free and sin enslaves.  This holy season is a time to break free from sin and start over.  Let us use this Lent as a time for all of us to renew our commitment to Our Lord and to begin to walk more faithfully with Him.