Wed, March 30, 202210 mins readFather Hans Buob

5th Sunday of Lent

Biblical Homilies on the Sunday Gospels in Reading Year C

Christ and the Adulteress, by Rembrandt van Rijn.

Bible passages


John 8:1-11

"While Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. But early in the morning, he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. 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. So what do you say?" They said this to test him so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She replied, "No one, sir." Then Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go, (and) from now on do not sin anymore."

Biblical Homilies


“While Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them.” (cf. verse 1-2)

Jesus goes to the temple during the day and teaches, but in the evening, he goes to the Mount of Olives and hides there from his enemies, who are still looking for him to arrest him, until, on Maundy Thursday, Judas betrays this hiding place.

When it says, "He sat down", this is, as it were, the expected behaviour of the teacher. The teacher normally teaches sitting in the synagogue on Moses' chair. Therefore, according to Jewish custom, sitting down and teaching is the teacher's sign.

“Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. 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. So what do you say?" They said this to test him so that they could have some charge to bring against him.” (cf. verse 3-6a)

Interestingly, the scribes are only mentioned in this passage in John; otherwise, there are talks of the Pharisees always. But this case occupies the scribes ex officio. That is why they are mentioned here.

The scribes and Pharisees call Jesus a teacher, i.e. they present this concrete case to him, the teacher, for decision. And the intention of these people is clear: to embarrass Jesus. They want to find a reason to accuse him. They want to get rid of him. And indeed, Jesus gets into a very difficult situation. He has to choose between the mercy he preaches and the letter of the law. If he goes against the law, he may be threatened with stoning himself. So how should he decide?

"Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." Again, he bent down and wrote on the ground." (cf. verse 6b-8)

So the Pharisees and scribes are looking for a reason to accuse Jesus. But Jesus does not give them a direct answer. He neither condemns the woman nor acquits her but writes with his finger in the sand.

What exactly Jesus wrote is interpreted differently: Some theologians think he wrote the sins of the accusers, i.e. the scribes and Pharisees, in the sand. Others refer to the prophet Jeremiah, where it says: "You hope of Israel, Lord! All who forsake you will be put to shame; those who turn away from you will be written in the dust, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living waters." (Jer 17:13) Jesus refers the accusers to the judgement of God before whom all are sinners so that God would have to write them all in the dust. This interpretation corresponds to the following verse: "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at them." It can be assumed that Jesus did write something in the sand, namely the accuser's sins.

So Jesus acts unimpressed by what is happening, and Jesus' action, what he writes in the dust, whether it was their sins or their names, does not seem to impress the scribes and Pharisees because they stubbornly continue to ask questions. But now, when he stands up and tells them plainly: "He who is without sin among you, let him be the first to throw a stone at her" - something begins. Now they become uncertain. The Greek expression "without sin" is found in the New Testament only in this passage. Who will stand as a witness against this woman when the testimony of God is against himself? How can I accuse another of sin when I am living in sin?

Then Jesus bends down again and writes on the earth. So if the above interpretation of what Jesus wrote in the sand was correct, then God now writes sinners in the dust, as it were. Here the word as such is to do its work: It was not Jesus' actions that moved the Pharisees and scribes, but his word. Here again, we feel the effect of the Word of God, as before in Nazareth: the Word of grace that made them all marvel. It is this word that strikes the heart.

“And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him.” (cf. verse 9)

Those who leave one by one after hearing Jesus' answer are certainly the scribes and Pharisees, for "Jesus remained alone with the woman who was still in the midst." And this midst is the people who, although they did not accuse the woman, gathered around her at Jesus' encounter with her. The phrase "first the elders" is remarkable. Why? The age is meant. And the elder must remember the sins accumulated in his long life!

But even after the departure of the scribes and Pharisees, the woman still stands as the accused and Jesus as the requested judge. So how does Jesus decide? That is the question. Augustine writes about this: "Two were left behind - misery and mercy."

Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?" She replied, "No one, sir." Then Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go, (and) from now on do not sin any more." (cf. verse 10-11)

Until now, Jesus has only spoken to the Pharisees and scribes. Here he addresses the woman for the first time. And he does not ask about her guilt, just as the father did not ask about the prodigal son. He asks her about her accusers. Let us think of the woman at Jacob's well, where Jesus did not approach her with accusations either but spoke to her in such a way that this woman was finally able to confess herself as a sinner. Again, Jesus wants to make the woman's answer easy by asking her about her accusers: "Has no one condemned you?" - "None, Lord." - "Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more from now on!" The woman here calls Jesus "kyrios" - "exalted Lord". It is a sign of the reverence she has for him. But she also knows that he has the last word to say, for the scribes had brought her before his court and left the decision to him. They have called him a teacher. And indeed, his word sounds like a very clear judicial decision: "Even I do not condemn you."

But the meaning of this acquittal is the second word: "Go and sin no more from now on!" Mercy is granted to man so that he may avoid sin in the future. I cannot take advantage of the mercy of God and sin on the mercy of God. Whoever does so will fall prey to judgement, i.e. he will meet justice and then can no longer stand before God. Jesus takes care of sinners. He does not want to judge but to save. But the prerequisite is that we strive to sin no more. We must do what is possible for us to receive this infinite mercy.

Today's Gospel - at the end of Lent, in preparation for Easter - is again a very strong invitation to us to truly repent and claim God's mercy, with the decision to sin no more and to begin a new life towards God. ∎