Sunday Reflection with Fr Terry Tastard - 21 March

Gustaf Dore

Gustaf Dore

There are many subtleties in the story of the woman caught in adultery, and they are important. There is also one big, clear message: the compassion of Jesus.

The compassion he shows is in contrast to the harshness of the way the woman is treated. We read that they made her stand there 'in full view of everybody'. Jesus will have no part in this public humiliation.

Of the subtleties, consider this. In Jewish law at that time, if you brought a charge against someone that could lead to their death, then you had to be prepared to be the executioner. In the case of stoning, you had to be prepared to cast the first stone. So Jesus, in challenging her accusers to start throwing stones at her, is actually applying the letter of the law. But then he adds the qualification: let the one without sin cast the first stone. He has avoided the trap. They were 'looking for something to use against him'. If he had told them to let her go then they would accused him of sitting lightly to the law. On the other hand, if he condemned her, then her life would be at risk. Jesus does neither, but turns the tables on her accusers by inviting them to reflect on their own sinfulness.

There is also something important here which speaks to our time. We are aware of how the perspectives of the genders can differ. We might say that the woman had failed in the fundamental value of protecting home and family life. Feminist thinking, has made us aware, however, of how often women have been objectified by men, and then condemned for these things that men project on to them.  So reading this story, we might reflect that the woman was not the only sinner in the story.

The same values and the same principles of self-control and fidelity apply to men as well.  Where, we might wonder, is the man with whom she committed adultery? Was he also subject to death by stoning or did the law prescribe a different penalty? I do not know the answer to the last question, but I am struck by how Jesus will not join in the humiliation of a woman. He will not allow all the condemnation to be heaped on her. Rather, he invites all those present to re-evaluate their own lives and their own conduct.  He does not condone what the woman has done:  his last words to her are that she should sin no more.  But Jesus does not condemn her either.  It reminds us of sacramental confession:  honesty about our sins, a resolve to sin no more with the help of God’s grace, and the assurance that God sets us free.  As St Paul writes:  ‘There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus (Romans 8.1).

Fr Terry is Parish Priest at Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Brook Green, west London.   His new book:  Ronald Knox and English Catholicism is published by Gracewing at £12.99 and is available on Amazon, from religious booksellers and from the publisher.
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