GOD SAVES; HE DOES NOT CONDEMN
The idea of God’s judgment is essentially identical in different religions, similar because it is in harmony with the concept of justice familiar to people. The famous image of the balance with the two plates in perfect balance is reproduced on all the stone coffins of ancient Egypt. On one side, there is a feather, the symbol of Maat, the goddess of wisdom, and on the other, the deceased's heart. Happiness or unhappiness in the future depends on which side weighs more.
The Koran gives God the wonderful title of ‘most forgiving’ but also in Islam, the Day of Judgment is the time of segregating the righteous from the wicked. The righteous are introduced to paradise, and the others are driven to hell. ‘God rewards the good and punishes the wicked because he is infinite justice,’ it is also guaranteed by the Catechism of the Christian doctrine. To put together this righteousness of God and his mercy is an arduous task! The rabbis of Jesus’ time argued that mercy intervened only when the good deeds and the bad ones were equal on the day of reckoning.
The puzzle can be solved only in the light of today’s Word of God that asks us first to distance ourselves from the ancient beliefs, although it is deeply rooted in us. In the First Reading, the prophet Isaiah recommends: “But do not dwell on the past or remember the things of old. Look, I am doing a new thing” (Is 43:18-19). In the behavior of Jesus presented to us in the Gospel, the new, surprising, and ‘scandalous’ righteousness of God is presented. He does not condemn anyone; he saves, and that is it.
To internalize the message, we repeat: “You, Lord, do not want the death of the sinner, but that he be converted and live.”
First Reading: Isaiah 43:16-21
Thus says the Lord, who opens a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters, who leads out chariots and horsemen, a powerful army, till they lie prostrate together, never to rise, snuffed out and quenched like a wick. Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers. Wild beasts honor me, jackals and ostriches, for I put water in the desert and rivers in the wasteland for my chosen people to drink, the people whom I formed for myself, that they might announce my praise. —The Word of the Lord.
Israel has consistently built her future by looking at her past. In her history, she has always found new ideas and new momentum to move forward. Some have likened these people to rowers who turn their back to the goal. They orient themselves by focusing their eyes on the starting point and the route already taken. Israel had overcome dramatic moments, had always remained a people even when she was deported and scattered among the nations. She has retained her identity thanks to her ability to remember and to refer to her past. To meditate on it and to pass on to their children their history is the first commitment of the parents:“What we have heard and known, which our ancestors have told us, we shall not keep them hidden from our children. We will announce them to the coming generation: the glorious deeds of the Lord” (Ps 78:3-4).
In the first part of the reading (vv. 16-17), the most important event of the past is reopened. It is the exodus that no one can forget. It is described with great images: God intervened with his power, has dominated the rushing waters, and amid the sea, opened a way for his people. Then he challenged the elite troops of Pharaoh, he drove out of Egypt chariots and horses, their army and heroes and beat them all; he turned off their ardor with the ease with which one turns off a wick.
If the memory is reduced to the cold reminiscence of events in ancient times, then it can cause at the most a poignant but vain longing. The recommendation: “Recall the days of old, think of the years gone by. Your father will teach you about them, your elders will enlighten you” (Deut 32:7) has another goal; God wants that the memory helps to understand the present and enlighten the future. There is another danger: seeing the mighty deeds of God in the past, the thought that he has already given the best of himself may come up.
In the second part of the reading (vv. 18-21), God himself answers this question. He says to the Israelites: Stop remembering the things of the past; do not consider the things of old, as if I cannot do them again! Open your eyes! Do you not see? I am about to do a work even more extraordinary than in the past.
What will the Lord do? He will deliver his people from slavery in Babylon; he will bring them back to their homeland. For a comfortable journey, he will prepare a road in the desert to quench their thirst; he will let springs of water gush out. The Israelites will drink in that same source with the wild animals, jackals, and ostriches, as it happened in the earthly paradise.
These are poetic, stunning images that show how God never forgets his people. He did not act alone in the past; he continues to show his love by performing even more wonderful gestures. To see them, it is enough to look at the events through the eyes of faith.
Second Reading: Philippians 3:8-14
Brothers and sisters: I consider everything as a loss because of the supreme good of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish, that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having any righteousness of my own based on the law but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God, depending on faith to know him and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by being conformed to his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.
It is not that I have already taken hold of it or have already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it, since I have indeed been taken possession of by Christ Jesus. Brothers and sisters, I for my part do not consider myself to have taken possession. Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus. —The Word of the Lord.
Paul was a Pharisee; he faithfully observed and fiercely defended the law. He was sure of achieving salvation through the fulfillment of all the traditions of the ancients. However, when he met Christ, he broke with his past and welcomed the novelty of the Gospel. Everything on which he had placed confidence lost value; he considered it “rubbish” (v. 8).
It is difficult to break off from the past completely. Think of how much it costs to give up beliefs that we have imbibed from an early age, ideas we consider logical, and what everyone assumes as ‘normal.’ Jesus challenges his disciples to break away from some of their beliefs. Our goal is to reach the ‘knowledge’ of Christ. The verb—to know—in the Bible has not just a conceptual, rational meaning. It implies the active involvement of the whole person. Paul aspires to full conformity to Christ: he wants to assimilate his thoughts, his opinions, his words, and his way of living.
In the second part of the reading (vv. 12-14), Paul cannot but admit to being still very far from the goal. Developing the metaphor of the athlete who competes in the stadium, he said that he continues moving toward the finish line. He wants to win the prize and is sure that one day he will, not by his efforts and merits, but because God accompanies him.
Gospel: John 8:1-11
Jesus went out 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 any more.” —The Gospel of the Lord.
When reading a book, if we happen to find that a page has been torn, we would probably think that the story contained unreasonable details and that a pious hand, to prevent trouble for some less mature readers, removed the offending text. Well, in the early centuries of the Church, when the books of the New Testament were transcribed from almost all copies of the Bible, the page of today’s Gospel was removed.
Luke must have composed it (the theme, style, and language are his), and its natural place is at the end of Chapter 21. It is there, in fact, that it is placed by a large group of ancient manuscripts. Indeed, it was not John, and no one knows how it entered the eighth chapter of the Fourth Gospel. Perhaps because, after a few verses, there is the phrase of Jesus: I do not judge anyone (Jn 8:15). In any case, this text has had a somewhat troubled history.
The reason? St. Augustine gave a bit dismissive and apparent reason: ‘Some members of little faith, or rather enemies of the true faith, probably feared that the welcome Jesus gave to the sinful woman granted immunity to their women.’ In other words: husbands, parents, and community leaders must have thought that the words of Jesus, “I do not condemn you,” could be misunderstood, and then … it is better to ignore the story.
However, the real reason for suspicion for this episode is perhaps another: the penitential practice that had been established in the early centuries of the Church.
In the first centuries, with the increased number of Christians, a certain laxity in moral quality led to the justification of any behavior as licit and permissible. In response, a belief spread far and wide that the Church could pardon grave sinners, but only once in their life. Repeat offenders will face the severe judgment of God. The rigorists preferred to put aside rather than give any importance to the episode of the adulteress.
Those who advocated a gentler and understanding attitude gladly recalled this story. In the apostolic constitutions—an important book of the fourth century—it is recommended to bishops to imitate what Jesus did ‘to the woman who had sinned, and that older people had set before him.’
Although with a certain suspicion or with sympathy, the passage remained. Then it was necessary to come up with an explanation for the offending sentence. Some would have preferred Jesus not uttering: “I do not condemn you.” He had begun by saying: see how good the Lord is? The woman had to be stoned, but since she was more than repentant, Jesus first defended her and then forgave her. But if it was so, why would the fact raise many objections to the point of trying to delete it from the Gospel? Would there be anything strange if Jesus had forgiven a repentant sinner? This is where the crux of the problem lies: there is absolutely nothing to suppose that she had repented.
Let us not confuse her with the sinner Luke speaks about in another part of his Gospel. She repented: wept, anointed the feet of Jesus, and dried them with her hair (Lk 7:36-50), but the adulteress in today’s Gospel has not done any of this. She was caught in the act, seized, threatened, perhaps beaten, then was thrown in front of Jesus. Nothing else. Of course, she must have been shocked, scared, and ashamed. In those conditions, assuming that she may have thought of an ‘act of perfect contrition’ is pure fantasy!
Jesus does not need our justifications. Does it surprise us? Does it upset us? Fine. We may not even agree with his behavior, but we cannot deny, modify, and minimize the scope of the fact. Let us figure it out. A woman is caught … not while she was reciting the rosary! Strangely, the man was not seized. It is the same old story: aggression, violence, and passion are always unleashed on the weakest; the strong always manage to escape and get away with it.
The law punished adultery with death (Lev 20:10). However, in practice, the judges were not severe; they always shut one eye and never condemned the guilty to death. Moreover, when the Bible imposed this penalty, it did not intend the actual execution. It only underscores the seriousness of the crime. Remember, the same punishment is accorded to a person who beats his own father (Ex 21:15).
We do not know who the authors of the morality of Jerusalem were, but one thing is sure: then, as now, there were people obsessed by the sexual sins of others. How do you explain this fanaticism in defense of public decency? Are these moralists really innocent and pure? Why do they enjoy the public display of the sins of others? Maybe these are people who would like to do the same things but cannot; they attacked those who did.
Someone in this group of moral vigilance must have proposed: let us drag this sinful woman to the Galilean teacher, to the man who is always on the side of these corrupt people. He will certainly not have the courage to defend her! You will see how he will be embarrassed when forced to speak out against “his friends” (Mt 11:19)!
They find him sitting in the temple yard, surrounded by many people who listen to him carefully. They drag the woman to the middle, and, with a smile of innuendo, they ask him: “Master, the law orders that such women be stoned to death, what do you say?” (vv. 4-5).
Jesus does not respond. He bends down and begins to write on the ground. What does he write? The opinion—which spread from St. Jerome—that he wrote the accusers' sins is meaningless, and no one supports it. However, the custom among Semitic people of scribbling on the ground while thinking or releasing tension or controlling the irritation caused by someone asking absurd or provocative questions is well documented.
Jesus could get out of trouble effortlessly: by inviting the accusers to take her to the legitimate judges. The court of the Sanhedrin is not more than a hundred meters away. But this would mean abandoning the woman that the “defenders of public morality” now consider a trophy, a prey. For this, he raises his head and says: “Let anyone among you who has no sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (v. 7). Then, he bends again and continues to draw lines on the ground.
At that point, the audience feels discomfort: they have been exposed. Their hypocrisy has been revealed. They lower their eyes, try to take a cavalier attitude while hiding their embarrassment and shame. They move away, starting with the elders, the ‘priests,’—says the Greek text. None remains except Jesus and the woman.
Let us consider well the position of the two. As was the case with the accused during trials (v. 3), the woman was standing, and Jesus was sitting (v. 2). Throughout the dialogue, the position is the same: Jesus bends (v. 6), raises his head (v. 7), and leans back (v. 8), but remains always seated and the woman was standing, “there in the middle” (v. 9).
In verse 10, the text says, “Then Jesus stood up,” giving the idea that, to pass judgment, he stood up. Not so. The verb used is the same as in verse 7 and translated as ‘raised his head.’ Jesus has remained where he was, down, in the servant's position, not the judge who looks down on the guilty. He only lifted his head to talk to the woman, with the sweetness of his gaze, the tenderness of God that does not condemn anyone. They have all gone—says the text—thus, together with the prosecutors, the crowd, and even the disciples left. Only Jesus remained to pronounce his surprising judgment: no condemnation.
The Gospel emphasizes that the first to leave were the elders. Maybe they are the more mature people in the community who are invited to make an examination of conscience. Often, they are the ones who delight in ‘throwing stones’ through gossips and slanders. If Jesus does not judge or condemn, does it mean that sin is a small thing? Does sin not matter?
No! Sin is a very serious evil because it destroys the life of the sinner. Jesus does not say to the woman: ‘Go in peace, you did well to betray your husband; do not repeat the error of ruining your life for a moment of pleasure.’ Nobody hates sin more than Jesus because nobody loves people more than him. However, he does not condemn those who make mistakes (and he allows nobody to throw stones) not to make the sinner's life more miserable.
Maybe he does not condemn now, but will he judge and punish his children who commit evil one day? Let us pay attention. Jesus does not say to the sinful woman: ‘For this time, I do not condemn you.’ This would be good also for purists of the first centuries. He says: “I do not condemn you” (v. 11) neither today nor tomorrow, not ever.
This page of the Gospel today does not disturb less than yesterday. It does not leave tranquil those who continue to claim righteousness, from the unassailable fortress of their respectability, of hurling stones no longer with the hands, but defaming, isolating, uttering harsh judgments, and spreading gossips. Jesus does not tolerate anyone who throws these cruel stones at those bent under the weight of their own mistakes.