The way in which the Church brings us through the reading of the gospels ensures that we read all four gospels over the course of a three-year cycle. In cycle C, our current cycle, we have been reading mainly from Luke’s gospel. In this gospel, Jesus is very intent on teaching us about the mercy and the compassion with which the Father blesses us. It is in Luke’s gospel that we find Jesus teaching regularly on a common theme - that of the Father’s efforts and delight, when someone is lost and is found. There’s the parable of the lost sheep, the parable of the lost coin, and the amazing parable of the Prodigal which we listened to only last week in Church.
Today’s gospel passage, however, is taken from the fourth gospel. It is very well chosen to align with our recent reading of Luke. Today’s passage continues to focus our attention on the mercy and compassion of God. It is entirely appropriate that as our Lenten journey progresses, we are invited by our scriptures to reflect even more deeply on the mystery of God’s mercy in our lives, and on our need for that mercy and compassion.
Today’s gospel selection narrates the story of the woman who was caught in adultery. It tells of a self-righteous crowd come to condemn both Jesus and the woman. What the crowd seems to be unaware of, however, is that their own condemnation, too, is in play. The scribes and Pharisees are looking to “test” Jesus, to catch him out, in order that they might have something with which to condemn him. They betray their own lack of integrity with their machinations and their plots to entrap Jesus. In a sense, this is like the “fake news” that is so common today. People take an experience or a narrative, often removing it from its proper context, spinning it, bending it to their own purposes, and they use it to attack or vilify some perceived opponent. This deceitful manipulation has become so commonplace in our times, it seems to me, that we’re almost immune to it. We almost seem to expect it. But what we’re not so good at is refusing to participate in it, or limiting our exposure to it.
When Jesus meets it in today’s gospel he doesn’t take the easy way out and just offer compassion to the woman caught in adultery. He is remarkable in that he also extends compassion to those who are seeking to entrap him and to vilify him. He does this by inviting them to consider their own lives and their own need for the mercy and compassion of God in those lives. By reminding them of their own humanity, both that which is praiseworthy of their humanity as well as that which is their personal failures in sin, Jesus offers them compassion and salvation. Had they ignored that invitation from Jesus, had they allowed their self-righteousness to win out over their wounded integrity, then only misery could have come from the experience. The woman would have been horribly wounded, if not killed outright. Jesus would have been sidelined and his teaching neutered, and the crowd, they would have had to live with their shameful hypocrisy and the misery that comes from self-righteous judgement and punishment of others. Instead, the crowd found its own redemption because of its acknowledgement that they were not innocent or pure any more than the woman whose sin was made to be so humiliatingly public. The woman found redemption because of the gentle goodness of Jesus which invited her to grow in her own personal integrity and to surprise others with her integrity as she found herself surprised by the integrity of Jesus. The mission of Jesus is strengthened and given more credibility by his delicately working with the crowd for their good as well as the good of the woman.
The human condition often finds us in situations where our own integrity is poised on a knife-edge. Our choices in such moments often lead us to taste the bitterness of misery or the sweetness of mercy. It may not always be easy to know what to believe in a world so filled with spin and fake news, but by their fruits shall you know them… Learning from our experiences can make all the difference in our learning to live with integrity or its refusal, to live upholding the dignity and value of a person with mercy, or to live with the misery that comes from denigrating and diminishing of another. This later choice, of course, leads to our own diminishment and a poverty of humanity… no one wins when we forego mercy in favor of misery. Thank God for the goodness of divine compassion made flesh in the person of Jesus Christ, the One who invites us all to be made new...