The scribes and Pharisees are at it again in this Sunday’s Gospel reading from the Eighth Chapter of John. At the beginning of Lent, we heard about the Satan tempting Jesus in the wilderness. However, throughout the Gospels, the scribes and Pharisees continually do exactly the same thing. Therefore, it is not a coincidence that, later on in the same chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus says to the Pharisees, “You are of your father, the devil” (v. 44). One could imagine Jesus quoting the same passage of Scripture to the Pharisees that he once quoted to Satan: “You shall not put the Lord your God to the test” (Dt 6:16; 4:12).
In this particular Gospel passage, the scribes and Pharisees are testing Jesus to see what he will do regarding a woman caught in adultery. In their conceit, they believe that they have forced Jesus into a no-win situation. As the Ignatius Catholic Study Bible on John notes, “(1) If Jesus authorizes the stoning, the Pharisees will report him to the Romans for criminal wrongdoing, for the Jews were not permitted to administer capital punishment under Roman rule. (2) If Jesus forbids the stoning, the Pharisees will discredit him as a false messiah who contradicts Moses, for the Torah classifies adultery as a capital crime” (p.33).
What is poor Jesus to do? Before he utters a word he simply bends over in the chair that he was teaching from “and began to write on the ground with his finger” (Jn 8:6). This by itself perhaps spoke volumes in retrospect. It would have brought to mind the prophet Jeremiah: “O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who forsake you will be put to shame; those who turn away from you shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water” (17:13). Being written in the earth is a direct contrast to being written in the book of life.
Jesus not only avoids the trap, he re-sets the trap and points it in the direction of the Pharisees. He says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (Jn 8:7). Jesus too knows the law. Those who witnessed the crime were supposed to be the ones to cast the first stones (Dt 17:7). The Ignatius Catholic Study Bible notes that Jesus “neither authorizes the stoning (incriminating himself) nor contradicts the law of Moses (compromising his teaching)” (p. 33). He refuses to be trapped by the “no-win situation” which was meant to bring him down.
Then Jesus bends down again to write on the ground and “they went away one by one, beginning with the elders” (Jn 8:9). Those who trying to trap Jesus were trapped by their own trap. They were put in the position of having to do one of the two things they had been trying to get Jesus to do. If they stone her, they will feel the wrath of the Romans. If they walk away, they compromise the Law of Moses. Additionally, by walking away, they demonstrate to everyone looking on that they are in fact sinners, though they definitely did not see themselves that way. They saw themselves as the holy and righteous ones and saw everyone else as sinners.
In his book, John, Biblical scholar Rodney Whitacre recognizes: “They (the Pharisees) are being rather deceitful. There is no evidence that this law was carried out with any regularity, so they are raising a question in the name of loyalty to Moses, using part of Moses’ teaching that they themselves have not kept” (p. 206). Deceit is, of course, another trait of their father, the devil.
Jesus is then left alone with the adulterous woman. He says to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” The woman responds, “No one, sir.” Jesus then says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore” (8:10-11).
Here we must understand that the emphasis of Jesus’ response lies in his admonition to her to sin no more. Jesus does not let her get away with her sin, which has not led to her physical death but to her spiritual death. In telling her to go and sin no more, Jesus calls her to new life. Jesus loves her and hates her sin.
If we truly love others, we must have the same attitude. We must love our neighbor, and hate their sin. However, we learn from Christ that it is absolutely crucial that we hate our own sin as well. We, too, need to heed the words of Jesus: “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”
Brian writes a monthly column, “Veritatis Splendor,” for The Northern Cross of the Diocese of Duluth and his 33-part series on the sacraments for The Northern Cross have also been posted on Catholic News Agency's website, where he also authors a weekly column, “Road to Emmaus,” on the Sunday Readings, (which are translated into Romanian and posted on www.profamilia.ro).
Pizzalato is currently authoring the regular series, "Catechesis and Contemporary Culture," in The Sower, published by the Maryvale Institute. He is also author of the Philosophy of Religion course book for the B.A. in Philosophy and the Catholic Tradition at the Maryvale Institute.
Brian holds an M.A. in Theology and Christian Ministry with a Catechetics specialization and an M.A. in Philosophy from Franciscan University of Steubenville, OH. Brian currently pursuing an M.A. in Biblical Studies at the Augustine Institute in Denver, CO as well as being a Ph.D. candidate at the Maryvale Institute. Brian is married and has six children.