Worshipers alert to the Church’s liturgical calendar might be surprised to see a passage from St. John read at Mass during Sunday cycle III which is dedicated to the writings of St. Luke. The possibility of confusion goes far beyond the average Catholic. Scripture scholars have discussed for centuries about the proper place in the Bible for this passage about the adulterous woman. The scene appears nowadays in chapter 8 of St. John’s Gospel account. But it is missing from that spot in many ancient Greek manuscripts. While the Church accepts its authenticity as an inspired account, many would argue that the passage seems better suited to St. Luke’s narrative rather than to St. John’s recollections.
First of all, St. Luke is the only author who mentions the Mount of Olives apart from the Passion accounts. According to St. Luke, Jesus spent a great deal of his time at the Mount of Olives, relaxing after having preached to the crowds at length: “During the day, Jesus was teaching in the temple area, but at night he would leave and stay at the place called the Mount of Olives (Lk.21:37).” The narrative concerning the adulterous woman would make perfect editorial sense following that observation. The account to be heard this Sunday begins, “Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. (Jn.8:1-2).”
Consider as well that Saints Matthew, Mark and Luke all report a series of trick questions that the scribes and Pharisees pitted against Jesus to embarrass him before the crowds. Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not? Whose wife will the woman with seven husbands be on the last day? Is John the Baptist’s authority from God or from man? What is the greatest commandment of the Law? These were all debates that the Jews had argued among themselves to no avail and were now used to humiliate the Master. The question posed about the adulterous woman was of the same genre. “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” If Jesus said to stone her, he would be in trouble with the Roman authorities since the Jews were not permitted capital punishment under Roman law. (Recall Jesus had to be hauled before Pilate, a Roman.) If Jesus said not to stone her, he would have been contradicting Moses! And then the Jewish authorities could have thrown this up in his face before the Jewish crowds. As usual, Jesus outfoxes the Jewish authorities with his clever response: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” So again, this tale fits in much more with the street corner arguments found in the synoptic accounts like St. Luke rather than in the more solemn revelations characteristic of St. John.
There is a popular notion that when Jesus bent down to write on the ground he was actually writing a list of the sins of the elders who were accusing the unfortunate woman. Indeed this notion is not just idle speculation. The prophet Jeremiah had long ago envisioned a similar situation. The young seer wrote, “Those who turn away from thee shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the LORD, the fountain of living water ” (Jer. 17:13 RSV). The Jewish elders had indeed forsaken the Lord, preferring to exploit the woman’s waywardness rather than bring about her conversion.
The conclusion of the incident is indeed in line with the writings of St. Luke who in his Sermon on the Plain equated mercy with perfection: “Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.” The episode concludes: “Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.” Indeed Jesus does not condemn the woman. After all, his whole mission was the forgiveness of sins. But then Jesus wisely and firmly instructs the erring soul: “…from now on do not sin anymore.” Forgiveness should evoke gratitude which should then lead to conversion. Absolution should confirm a firm purpose of amendment. No more sin!