The Fifth Sunday in Lent

3 April 2022 at Saint William Church & at the Canisius College Alumni Reunion in Naples, FL

Isaiah 43, 16-21 + Psalm 126 + Philippians 3, 8-14 + John 8, 1-11

This cleverly told story that comes to us from John’s Gospel is loaded with fascinating details to spark our imaginations. At the same time, it is lacking in some details that can also raise some questions in our minds. When it comes to these missing details, we have to wonder how they caught her, and where was the other culprit? If you know the Law of Moses they are quoting, you also know that their quotation is not accurate since the Law of Moses also imposes a penalty on the man. Do these self-appointed enforcers not know the law they seem so ready to enforce?

What we really have here is gang of bullies and an unnamed woman saved by Jesus from a crowd who were out to get him! What we also have here is Jesus confronting the death penalty, and a lot of people don’t like to hear that or even think about it much less learn what Jesus has to say and does about it. What we really have here is meeting of misery and mercy.

In every age people have been fascinated by that detail telling us that Jesus bent down and wrote in the sand. More time has been waisted guessing what he wrote producing nothing more than one silly idea after another. If what was written was really important, John would have told us. What we do know is that Jesus used his finger which every one of those standing there and those who first received John’s Gospel would have remembered is exactly the way God writes on the tablets of Law given to Moses: “with his finger” says Exodus 31, 18. It is also an opportunity to remember that the Law was not given to condemn but as a guide to a godly way of life. 

There is here a delicate balance between the Justice of Jesus in not condoning the sin and his mercy in forgiving the sinner. So, perhaps the writing in the sand is not nearly as important as the posture. John tells us that Jesus bent down. Instead of standing high and mighty, instead of standing over her in judgement, he bent down to her level, and my imagination is that they met eye to eye, and he looked into her soul and again, misery met mercy.

What John seems to be revealing here with this story is not just something about God, but something about us, and how far we often stray from the image in which we were made. Jesus is confronted here by a group of bullies, zealots who have taken upon themselves the indignant enforcing of the law. What Jesus confronts is their zeal for the words of the law that blinds them to the intent of the law. We live in a world of bullies and zealots these days that is rarely tolerates or expects mercy while shouting for justice which in most hands looks more like revenge. 

As this Lenten season moves us toward Holy Week, we are somewhat prepared by this scene for another mob who will be shouting for death. The Jesus sent to us by God has come not to condemn, but to heal and forgive. He comes with empty hands ready to reach down and lift us up surely with the hope that we shall do the same to one another. We can’t do that when our fists are closed around stones of revenge and self-claimed righteousness. Before this Lent comes to an end, we have to drop those stones and embrace our own misery ready to meet mercy.

Father Tom Boyer