Throughout the Gospels, Jesus has several run-ins with the Pharisees, who usually try to put Jesus between a rock and a hard place. Don’t pay taxes to Caesar, and you’re an outlaw. Tell your followers to pay taxes, and you’re just as corrupt as the tax collectors. Heal that crippled man today, and you’ll be breaking the law that forbids working on the Sabbath. Don’t heal him, and look like heartless person who can’t perform miracles anyway.
Each time, Jesus surprises everyone by choosing option C, none of the above. In this week’s passage from John 8, he does the same. The Pharisees present him with a woman who had been caught in adultery – a capital offense in this time and place. They place her in the middle of a circle of men, to highlight her humiliation, and use her to make a point – if Jesus lets her go, he is renouncing the Jewish laws. If he stones her, as the law requires, they could call him a merciless killer.
Jesus instead writes in the dirt – an action that some Scripture scholars believe references Jeremiah 17:13, “Those who turn away from thee shall be written in the earth, for they have forsaken the Lord, the fountain of living water.” It’s likely that the Jews would have recognized this Old Testament reference, and it’s meaning – to remind them that their actions were not in fact doing the will of God, but turning them way from the Lord.
Imagine for a second that you are that woman stuck in the middle of that circle. Think of the embarrassment of being publicly called out, reminded of our sins, under the threat of a painful death. The only thing you would be asking for at that moment is exactly what Jesus offers her – mercy.
What about the Pharisees? I picture someone caught up in their own thoughts and desires – which we all have done at one point or another. Maybe some of them were so legalistic in their thinking that they forgot to also leave room for the part where God LOVES his people. Maybe some of them were so angry at Jesus, whom they believed to be a blasphemous heretic, that they were willing to do anything to stop him – including sacrificing the dignity of another person. Maybe they got caught up in the mentality of the group, only to be left standing there, stones in hand, wondering, “how did I get to this point?”
I haven’t thrown stones at anyone, but I can definitely think of times in my life where I have been in one of these situations – following what I thought was right, angry and accusing, or following along apathetically. I can also think of many times where it feels like I’ve been presented with two options – and neither feels like the right one. Jesus inspires us here to be creative, and choose “option C” – mercy. Jesus isn’t telling us that sins don’t matter, but he IS telling us that they can be forgiven. In today’s world, sometimes it feels like in order to live out the Gospel, we have to stuff it into a world-shaped box, conforming it to society’s expectations. However, when we follow that example of Christ, we let HIM set those expectations – which sometimes means blowing that box wide open.
With that in mind, St. Paul’s letter from the second reading leaves us with instructions on exactly HOW to accomplish that. He says, “Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind but straining forward to what lies ahead, I continue my pursuit toward the goal, the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus” (Phil 3:13-14).