All three Scripture readings deal with images of new life. They are all about people getting stuck and then getting unstuck, because God opened up a new path before them. Isaiah (700 B.C.) is speaking to the Hebrews who are stuck in captivity in Babylon and who long to come back home to Israel. Isaiah tells the people, “Remember, 600 years ago, God made a way in the sea, a path in the mighty waters, through the Red Sea, so that your ancestors could be safe from Pharoah’s chariots, horses, and warriors. Why wouldn’t God do it again for you here and now? See, I am about to do a new thing.” If I was a Ukrainian refugee, or any refugee, I would want God to open up the path for me to get me back to my home as well.
That same theme of new life and new paths opening up is echoed in Paul’s letter to the Philippians. Paul says, “I forget what lies behind, and I strain forward to the fullness of life that lies ahead in Christ Jesus.”
Let’s look at that theme of straining forward to newness of life from today’s gospel story. It starts this way: Jesus went to the Mount of Olives and early in the morning he came again into the Temple. The only other time the Mount of Olives and the Temple are mentioned together is in Book of Ezekiel. There is a line in Ezekiel telling us that God’s glory left Israel, on account of Israel’s sin, and leapt back to heaven from the Mount of Olives. The rabbis love to spin the story this way: as the people disregarded the covenant they had with God by allowing all sorts of injustices and oppressions in their midst, God’s anger grew with the people of Israel. As peoples’ attachment to false gods grew (and don’t think we’re any different), God became increasingly uneasy living in covenant with these people. It got so bad that God decided to move out. But God glory did not move out in one shot; God’s glory moved out gradually. You see, God lived in the Holy of Holies, the inner sanctum in the Temple. And from the Holy of Holies, God’s glory leapt to the parapet of the Temple. And then, as the people’s sin increased, God’s glory leapt from the parapet of the Temple to the eastern gate, all the time moving up higher and higher. And as things got worse and worse, God’s glory leapt from the eastern gate back to where it came from—heaven. When God’s glory sprang back into the sky, the people were spirit quenched. God had left the land, the covenant was badly harmed, and the people were left to their own devises.
So now you see what’s happening. The glory of God is returning in the reverse way it left. Jesus went to the Mount of Olives and early in the morning he came to the Temple.This story is very misnamed if we keep naming it “the story of the woman caught in adultery,” because it’s not about that. It’s about the return of God’s glory.
The Pharisees have brought a woman who has been caught in the very act of committing adultery. It’s important that it’s stated that way as we will see later on. They are not so much trapping the woman, the little fish; they are trying to trap Jesus, the big fish. He’s the one they are after. They said that Moses had given them the authority to stone adulterers, and now they wanted to know what Jesus had to say about the whole matter. We know this is a trap for it says, “they said this to test Jesus so that they might have some charges to bring against him.” There is no sin to hold Jesus to, but if they can get him to say something incriminating, then they will have something to hold him to. If it takes shaming a woman to get Jesus to fall into their trap, they’ll do it. Under Roman law, the Jews could not put anyone to death; only Romans can do so. So, if you want someone killed, tells the Romans that this person is subverting the established order, and out comes the lumber for another crucifixion.
Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. He says, “Let anyone who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground. Jesus wrote twice and he wrote with his finger twice. There is only one other person who writes with his finger and that is God. With the finger of God, God wrote the Ten Commandments. Moses takes the Ten Commandments, comes down Mount Sinai, and catches the people doing what? He caught them in the very act of committing adultery. What is adultery? Using something or someone for a purpose they were never meant to be used for. The Pharisees are about to stone the woman with the very stones of the Ten Commandments. That’s the only adultery in this story. They are using the Ten Commandment for a purpose it was never meant to be used for. They are adulterating the commandments of God. The Ten Commandments were meant to build people up, not stone them to death.
Today’s gospel story is really a story about how we attach ourselves to false gods and how we love it. It has nothing to do with sexual sins. What does Moses do when he catches people in the very act of committing adultery? He breaks the commandments. There are no more commandments. They are smashed into pieces. So, Moses goes up the mountain again, and before he can say anything, God says, “I know, I know. I saw the whole thing from up here. I am the One who is mighty and merciful showing mercy from generation to generation. By the way, Moses, cut me two more tablets.” And with the finger of God, God writes the commandments a second time.
That’s why Jesus writes twice, because God writes twice. The glory of God in your life and in my life is that God writes twice. Thank goodness! In the scriptures the only one who writes once is Pilate. “What I have written I have written.” There is no recourse and certainly no mercy with Pilate. His death sentence is final. With God there is always a way out, a second chance. God never tires of writing God’s law over and over again in our hearts.
Why does God write twice? Because in between the first and the second writing is the deepest truth. We are all in solidarity in the world of sin. No one can cast a stone in righteousness. There is no world of the righteous here and the sinner over there. That is a false god that validates my violence towards someone else. There is only one God, the God who writes twice. The glory of God has come back, and this time will not be driven out by sin. It’s going to stay with us and liberate us from the bonds of our own self-righteousness.
When they heard it, they walked away, one by one, beginning with the eldest. When they “heard it,” means when they “got it.” What did they get? They understood the symbol of writing twice. And they knew what the silence in between the first and the second writing meant. They knew what Jesus was telling them, “This is your sister, and you’re her brothers and the definition of adultery you are using is totally wrong.” They walked away one by one. Why one by one? Because in the world of sin, you are always alone. There is no solidarity, no communion in the world of sin, only desperate attempts at justification.
This is John’s gospel. Who is Jesus in John’s gospel? In the opening lines of John’s gospel, we are told that Jesus is the light that has come into the world but, unfortunately, people preferred the darkness. This is a great truth that has come into our lives but a truth that often appears as pain and hurt. The longer we identify with lies or darkness, the harder it is to forsake the darkness and enter the light. That’s why the elders leave first. They cannot forsake the darkness; they’ve been identifying with it longer than anyone else. They can’t let go of the darkness and they can’t let go of the stones. This is a great mystery. Why is it we often prefer the darkness even when the light is right in front of us?
“Where are they?” asks Jesus. This is meant to be downright disappointment. The woman has a new freedom, the Pharisees leave with their dignity, but Jesus is clearly disappointed. “Where are they?” He wanted them all to enter into the light, not just the woman. He wanted all the sheep, not just 99, and certainly not just one sheep. They tried to trap him, but he did not try to humiliate them. He wanted them all to share in God’s light, a light that has come into the world and has no intention of ever again retreating back to the heavens. He opened the sea, a path in the mighty waters, but only the women crossed over with him.What patience God must have with us. The glory of God has returned. The banquet table has been set. All we need to do is as St. Paul says, “forget what lies behind, and strain forward to the fullness of life that lies ahead in Christ Jesus.” The light is free, the banquet is free, and the forgiveness has always been free.
Fr. Phil Mulligan