What happens with Jesus and the woman found in adultery is often misunderstood. I’ve heard people say how it shows how terrible the Church is to call us to renounce sin, how Christians shouldn’t say anything about sexual morality, or how as long as I love God it doesn’t really matter what I do etc. None of these things are found in this story: do not sin any more, Jesus says to her.
In reality this Gospel is far more radical. The first thing which stands out is the reference – twice – to adultery. Certainly – she committed adultery, she’s broken the law, and so it is understandable they bring her for judgement. Jesus knows and loves the law, and so does not correct them for this. But what is important is the word adultery – which jumps out to anyone familiar with the Scriptures, especially with the history of the people of Israel. If there is one complaint God regularly made about his people through the whole series of prophets it is that they were so adulterous – not simply their sexual immorality and lack of self-control, but rather preferring other things to Him, their only true love. Loving God doesn’t simply mean he has a place amongst my collection of loves like my spouse, children, work, ways of recreation. Loving God means he takes up most of the space of my heart – with anyone else a distant second.
This is the whole point of all the readings which proceed the Gospel:- Give me justice, O God, and plead my cause against a nation that is faithless – Jesus is complaining to his Father about our lack of love. Yes, I am making a road in the wilderness, paths in the wilds…I am putting water in the wilderness (rivers in the wild)…Deliver us, O Lord, from our bondage as streams in dry land: creation is a wilderness where the only true richness is found in God’s works. Nothing can happen that will outweigh the supreme advantage of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For him I have accepted the loss of everything, and I look on everything as so much rubbish if only I can have Christ and be given a place in him.
This is why Jesus says those famous words: let him be the first to throw a stone at her. In other words that yes this woman is guilty of adultery. And so are you – prostituting yourself in your heart and action to other things rather than having me, the Source of Life, flowing from the centre of your heart. By his very words Jesus shows mercy not only for her (and his call of conversion to her is an act of mercy) but also for them – and us, pointing out to them and us: I am pointing out your faults so that you understand, you idiots, that by seeking to impose the sentence you are demanding the same thing for yourselves first of all!
Here we see one way Christianity illuminates our society. It’s a common common feature of Western society: when someone stuffs up, or does things in a way we don’t like, it is common to see online, or in the media, or in the situation, people erupt into a squall of outrage, nasty gossip and public humiliation. The thing is that, while the erupters might be right (and normally we aren’t about the whole situation), we are forgetting our own foolishnesses, and forgetting God’s own mercy to us. Jesus doesn’t deny the importance of correction – but he is patient and kind, and helps the woman. We must do the same.