Homily preached by Fr Terence Richardson OSB at Conventual Mass on Sunday 17th March 2013, the Fifth Sunday of Lent. Fr Terence serves the Community as Prior.
This is a very dramatic scene. Jesus is teaching in the Temple, the centre of the Jewish religion, and suddenly the scribes and Pharisees drag in this woman caught in the act of adultery. Of course what they are doing is trying to catch Jesus out, to trip him up.
I want to go through the Gospel story, looking at each of the characters.
First, the scribes and the Pharisees. What did they feel? I guess they were proud of themselves. They had caught this woman in the very act of committing a serious sin, a sin that according to the rules deserved the punishment of death, death by stoning. It was an open-and-shut case.
And of course they were right: the Jewish Law forbade adultery, just as Christian morality also forbids it. How we behave with our bodies matters enormously. Our bodies are part of who we are. That is why it was important that God the Son should take on our human flesh, becoming a full human being, with a body like yours and mine – the very act of doing this begins the process of our own redemption. And it is completed by him dying – truly bodily dying – giving up his last breath – on the cross, and then wonderfully rising from the dead on the third day. And it is celebrated weekly, daily in the Mass, when we receive the Body of Christ – once again God the Son dwelling in the material. And this reception underlines our membership of the Body of Christ, the people of God. Even our actions on Friday night, when we all venerated and kissed the cross, is a bodily action.
So Christ’s body matters. Saint Paul will state baldly that we make up the Body of Christ. And our bodies matter too. We look forward not just to the survival of our souls, but to the Resurrection of the Body, as St Paul reminded us in the reading this morning, and as we will proclaim in the creed in a few minutes. Christianity is a truly bodily religion. And as humans, we relate to each as embodied beings. Every gesture, every touch, every look, has significance and the psychologists tell us that we pick up more clues from the non-verbal communication than we do from the words we actually say.
And this is why sexual intercourse can never trivial. It is a deeply significant act of self-offering and openness to the other person. It builds up a sense of unity and can be complete and truly meaningful only in a life of commitment, the married state. So sex matters, deeply. And that is why both Jews and Christians treat sexuality as so important and regard the breaking of the marriage vow as so significant.
Those Pharisees and Scribes clearly expected Jesus to agree with them. They presumed that Jesus would support the Law and as himself a chaste person, he would even start the process by casting the first stone. They had taken a risk, though, first of all by touching the woman and dragging her along to Jesus, and even more by taking her to the Temple. They risked ritual defilement themselves, and more importantly they were defiling the Temple itself.
Jesus could have taken that approach: to condemn them for bringing the sinful woman into the Temple. Tell them to take her outside and deal with her there. But he takes a different line. Jesus uses it as an opportunity to get them to reflect on their own lives, so from being proud they become ashamed, conscious of their own sin, and of how they were guilty, like the woman. As we all know it is much easier to accuse other people of being sinners, to examine their consciences, than it is to face up to our own failures and guilt.
What did Jesus feel? Well, he was probably angry. He had been calmly teaching in the Temple and the Pharisees and scribes had interrupted his class. But the teaching he now gave by his actions and his refusal to condemn was much more powerful than any lesson. Jesus was perhaps embarrassed as well, but he uses the situation as an opportunity to get everyone to look into their own hearts. To separate the sin from the sinner. To condemn the sin but love the sinner.
What did the woman feel? Embarrassed and ashamed, certainly. I bet she regretted every moment and wished she could turn back the clock. She would be afraid too. Everyone knew what the punishment for adultery was. She was expecting to be killed in a brutal and painful manner, and it was only delayed - she just didn’t know when that torture would begin. But as everybody leaves and she is left in that one-to-one with Jesus, surely she is relieved and probably a bit confused as well. But we can guess that as it dawned on her what had actually happened, she would be filled with a new and deep joy. Never again would she sin. She had received the grace of forgiveness. Her life would never be the same again. There was a deep and lasting change inside her. Like so many of the people who encountered Jesus – including other notorious sinners – think of Zacchaeus, think of doubting Thomas - the effect of Jesus’ forgiveness was so profound that their lives were completely turned upside down.
Finally, what did the onlookers feel, those who were listening quietly to Jesus before the Pharisees and Scribes brought the woman along: what did they feel? They had gathered round Jesus in the temple to hear him teach. But in the event they too were challenged. They could not remain as spectators. Let him who is without sin cast the first stone! None of them were sinless either. They too needed forgiveness. They were dragged into the story, and they too slunk away.
The same is true of us. None of us is sinless. Faced with this challenge from Jesus, we too would want to slide away, embarrassed. But there is another alternative: to admit our own sins, and to ask God’s forgiveness. After all, he already knows us so well. He knows what we are like; he knows what we have done, or failed to do. He knows that we deserve to be condemned, and that our own power cannot save us.
But that is exactly why the Father sent to Son into our world, taking on our own flesh, to take away our sins – mine and yours – so we can ask him to forgive them. And he does. He has given his Son so that we may be reconciled. This is what we are preparing for in the next fortnight. Be yourselves filled with joy like the woman was – and be ready to celebrate this at Easter.