I Forgive You. Now Don’t Do It Again.

My husband and I go to the Vigil Mass at our parish. Our pastor delivered a fine homily yesterday. It was based on the Gospel story of the woman taken in adultery.

He made a point that I’ve often thought myself, that the woman in this story was set up. You catch someone in “the very act” of adultery by being there. This outrage of the scribes and pharisees, which included demands that a woman be stoned to death, was fake outrage. 

The pharisees were so zealous to entrap Our Lord that they were willing to entrap and murder this poor woman along the way. I’ve always thought that the man with whom she had been caught in “the very act” of adultery was probably standing there with them, stones in his hand, ready to throw.

Such is the “mercy” of legal beagle clerics who care more for the trappings of religion than they do for the call to holiness that applies to every single person on this planet. They are so intent on following “the rules,” so focused on, as Jesus said, “cleaning the outside of the cup” that they leave the inside, which is their own souls, “filthy — full of greed and self-indulgence.”

I know because I’ve done it that human beings are capable of convincing themselves of anything. We can convince ourselves that we are holy. We can convince ourselves that our “personal morality” is, in fact, actual morality. We can make ourselves believe that our obsessions and fixations on the appearance of things truly are more important than their substance. We can, as these teachers of religious law did, forget our own sins and focus on the sins of others to the point of stoning them to death.

Today’s Gospel story has often been used against Christians by people who do not believe in Jesus and who do not follow Him. They confuse its meaning to say that we should go along with them in claiming that their sins are not sins and that, in fact, there is no sin. They want to twist the story to mean that their “personal morality” is, in fact, actual morality.

I don’t think that is what Jesus meant when He said, “Let him among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” The scriptures record the tantalizing but unexplained fact that Jesus knelt and wrote in the dust while He was speaking.

What was He writing? Was He perhaps writing the name of the man who had been with the woman when she was taken “in the very act?” Perhaps this man was the one making the demand that she be stoned. We don’t know. All we do know is that something happened that doesn’t often happen and these men became convicted of their own sins instead of the woman’s.

They dropped their stones and walked away.

This was not mercy on Our Lord’s part. It was the act that precedes mercy, which is to convict of us our own sins. We can not receive mercy for sins that we do not admit. We can not be forgiven without an understanding on our part that we need forgiveness.

The pitiful scribes and pharisees did not stay around to get the mercy they needed. They did not say, as Peter did, “have mercy on me Lord, for I am a sinful man.” They dropped their stones and went away to plot other evils for other days. They were temporarily foiled in their evil, not converted to the light.

But the woman, the sinful, terrified woman whose death would have been nothing more than a means to an end for these sin-sick priests, what became of her? Again, we don’t know for sure. Was she the Mary Magdalene who stood at the foot of the cross and who was the first one to see the risen Christ? Many people think so. Was she the woman who kissed Jesus’ feet and washed them with her tears while he was at dinner with a Pharisee? Maybe.

All we know for sure is what Jesus said to her. I do not condemn you, he said. Now go, and sin no more.

He didn’t tell her that what she’d been doing, how she’d been living, was right. He didn’t tell her that she was without sin. He told her, “sin no more.”

That is God’s mercy. It is the mercy that does not lie to us by letting us slide past the reality of our sins. But it is a mercy that also doesn’t equate us with our sins. We are more than the evil we do. We are the errant children of the living God Who will always forgive us when we go to Him in humility and remorse for what we have done, but who will never do us the great disservice of telling us that what we’ve done is ok.

God tells us, like I told my own children, “Don’t do it again.” Don’t run in the house and break the lamp. Don’t hit your brother with a stick. Don’t commit adultery, lie, cheat, steal, rape or kill. Don’t do it again.

That is the mercy of God. It  is not the namby-pamby self-referencing whatever-is-popular-is-not-a-sin mercy our culture teaches us to demand of Him.

To obtain God’s mercy, we have to do more than put down our stones and go away to plot more evil. We have to want to change. Because, when it comes to our sins, He will always tell us, “I forgive you. Now don’t do it again.”

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  • Bill S

    Great article with one exception:

    “They want to twist the story to mean that their “personal morality” is, in fact, actual morality.”

    I don’t know about twisting the story, but it seems reasonable to assume that we should all live in compliance with the laws of the land AND our own personal morality. If you get your personality from the Catholic Church, by all means follow it but don’t impose it in me.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Bill, you are afflicted with a kind of mental tunnel vision. Whatever I write about, you post the same response. This post is not about American statutory law, but about our own personal relationship to our sins and to God, and yes, the ways that Gospel is twisted to ends for which it was not meant, including today’s version of using this story to demand that no sin can be called a sin.

    • Theodore Seeber

      Morality can never be personal- because by definition, it’s interpersonal- even when you’re just a junkie trying to get your next fix and encouraging cartel violence in Mexico 2000 miles away.

  • Bill S

    Auto correct error: change “personality” to “personal morality”.

  • http://tljax.wordpress.com tl

    Well said, Rebecca!
    Romans 6, “17 But thanks be to God that, though you used to be slaves to sin, you have come to obey from your heart the pattern of teaching that has now claimed your allegiance. 18 You have been set free from sin and have become slaves to righteousness.”

  • http://www.herofantasyfiction.com Peter

    Beautifully said, Rebecca. Thank you and God bless you.

    • Rebecca Hamilton

      Thank you Peter.

  • Peg

    Our priest today noted that tradition has it that Jesus was writing the sins of the scribes and pharisee’s–and where the phrase “get dirt on someone”came from. I guess we might never know for sure but I’d always heard this and thought it seemed to fit. Have always loved this scripture it’s so rich in meaning.

  • Subsistent

    A balanced and instructive post, IMO.
    What was Jesus writing on the ground? My guess — in agreement with the guess of a Dominican lecturer I heard in college — is that he was probably just sort of doodling, scratching, on the ground, in sheer contempt for the set-up. (The Greek word for “write” means also “scratch”.)
    My impression, though, is that the Roman government occupying the land prohibited the Jews from carrying out the death penalty, something the Romans reserved to themselves. So that if Jesus were to say, “Stone her”, the Scribes and Pharisees could go and tattle on Jesus to the Romans, saying he was advocating violation of the Romans’ prohibition. So it was Jesus they were setting up. For if he said, “Don’t stone her”, the Scribes and Pharisees could say to the Sanhedrin that Jesus was contravening the Law of Moses.

  • Laddie V Mapani

    Yeah it makes one want to go for confession, and run towards the goal forgeting all about yesterday. I loved all the readings. Thank you.

  • JJ

    As a side issue, according to Old Testament law, the man was also to be stoned to death. Notice the setup did not include the man to be stoned. Jesus knew and was full of mercy.

    God Bless

    • Dante Aligheri

      Interesting. I don’t disbelieve you; however, do you know what the verse is?

      • Rebecca Hamilton

        I’ll interject, if it’s ok.
        Leviticus 20:10

        • Dale

          The verse which Rebecca cited is the first mention in the Bible that both adulterers are to be executed. However, Deuteronomy 22:22 also prescribes the same punishment.

        • JoFro

          “I’ve always thought that the man with whom she had been caught in “the very act” of adultery was probably standing there with them, stones in his hand, ready to throw.”

          Since Roman Law did not allow stoning, there is a good chance he was already jailed!

          • Rebecca Hamilton

            The story doesn’t sound to me like the Roman authorities were involved at all.

  • SteveP

    Very good synopsis, Rebecca. Rene Girard in “I see Satan Fall Like Lightning” also uses this story to show how Jesus breaks Satan’s power of “holy violence.” There is indeed much going on the in story.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    That’s a great point by your pastor that she was set up. My pastor also spoke at length, and while he didn’t make the point of her being set up, he did bring out what a horrid use of this poor woman by the Pharisees for their personal gain.

    There was another interesting point that I read somewhere yesterday and I now I can’t remember where that was. It was on Jesus using his finger to write in the sand. The person where I read it pointed out that God wrote the ten commandments with His finger, and now here Jesus is updating the Mosaic law with His finger. Of course we are never told what Jesus writes. I have always wondered about that.

    I love this passage in the NT by the way.

  • http://jessicahof.wordpress.com Jessica Hoff

    But Bill, if you say that in this instance you align yourself not with Jesus but with the Pharisees. They thought that the law should apply in all cases – which is why they thought they had Jesus trapped. Rebecca gets Our Lord’s point – I am not sure you do.

  • Sus

    This is a great post Rebecca. If humans gave mercy like God and Jesus, the world would be a much better place.

  • Greg

    Being the economical person he is, Jesus contributes meaning of many dimensions in the things he does. One of them is his reference to the land: January 17 had Isaiah 62:1-5, including, “For the LORD delights in you and makes your land his spouse.” The scribes and pharisees knew that through the prophets, the Lord had denounced as adultery the infidelity of the Israelites to the Mosaic covenant, which led to God’s expelling them. Their return to the Promised Land was inescapably recognizable as unmerited mercy. Meanwhile, Jesus had just been upbraiding them for their infidelity to God. Thus, this woman’s sin, terrible as it was, paled in comparison to the same betrayal they made toward God. As the scribes and pharisees were intimately familiar with Scripture, they would have recognized Jesus’ reference to the Promised Land for all it symbolized, and understood that Jesus held them to be in the same position as this woman.