Casting the First Stone

On the Readings for the Fifth Sunday of Lent

• Is 43:16-21
• Ps 126:1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6
• Phil 3:8-14
• Jn 8:1-11

Imagine being caught in a most serious and embarrassing sin, then taken into a crowded public area and placed before the man who will, apparently, determine your fate. You stand in the middle, between your accusers and your judge, like someone walking a tightrope with doom, perhaps death, waiting on either end.

You are lost, alone, damned. And you know you are guilty of the sin of which you have been accused. The only unsettled matter is the exact form of your punishment. You only hope it isn’t death.

We all have something in common with the woman caught in adultery: we are sinners in desperate need of mercy, without argument or alibi, completely at the mercy of a righteous judge. Lent, of course, is meant to remind us of this need for God’s mercy and forgiveness, not in order to make us feel enslaved, but to recognize anew the joy of salvation. “Those that sow tears,” today’s responsorial Psalm states, “shall reap rejoicing.”

A word that stands out to me in the story of Jesus and the adulterous woman is “caught.” The woman had been caught in adultery—probably through devious means, based on the absence of the guilty man. The scribes and the Pharisees hoped Jesus would be caught in their legal snare. Their trap was simple and seemingly airtight. The Law was clear about the punishment for sins such as adultery: “If a man is found lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman, and the woman; so you shall purge the evil from Israel.” (Deut. 22:22; cf. Lev. 20:10). If Jesus allowed the woman to live, he would be accused of acting contrary to the Law. But, as St. Bede noted, if Jesus “determined that she was to be stoned, they would scoff at him inasmuch as he forgotten the mercy that he was always teaching.”

Jesus’ response was brilliant on both the legal and spiritual levels. First, he bent down and began to write on the ground, the only instance of Jesus writing that is recorded in the Gospels. What did he write? Speculation abounds. Perhaps the sins of some of the accusers? Perhaps something from the Law, such as, “You shall not join hands with a wicked man, to be a malicious witness” (Ex. 23:1)?

Whatever the words were that Jesus traced on the ground, they set up his stunning riposte: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” This turned the rhetorical thrust of the scribes and Pharisees back into themselves. In so doing, Jesus presented the accusers with difficult options: if any of them did throw a stone, he would have outrageously declared his moral perfection. And if anyone threw stones, they likely risked being severely punished by the Romans (cf. Jn. 18:31). If none of them threw a stone, they would admit implicitly their sinfulness. They were caught.

It wasn’t just that the scribes and Pharisees were sinners; it was the fact that Jesus had exposed their unjust and sinful use of the woman as a pawn. “He recognizes that,” observed Fr. Raymond Brown, “although they are zealous for the word of the Law, they are not interested in the purpose of the Law…” Beaten at their own game, the accusers melted away. “The two were left alone,” wrote St. Augustine in a memorable description, “the wretched woman and Mercy.”

Now you are standing face to face with the righteous teacher and merciful judge. You know your sins; you are well aware of what you deserve. Further, you know that Jesus has not overlooked your sins. “Therefore the Lord did also condemn,” insisted Augustine, “but condemned sins, not the sinner.” And so, while rejecting your sin, he accepts you. He invites you to a radical life of discipleship, liberated from sin and free from being precariously balanced between accusation and damnation.

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the March 21, 2010, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1227 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.