263. Getting What We Don’t Deserve (John 8:2-11)

“His attitude towards sinners was full of kindness and loving friendship.” – St. John Bosco

John 8:2-11: At daybreak he appeared in the Temple again; and as all the people came to him, he sat down and began to teach them. The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman along who had been caught committing adultery; and making her stand there in full view of everybody, they said to Jesus, ‘Master, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery, and Moses has ordered us in the Law to condemn women like this to death by stoning. What have you to say?’ They asked him this as a test, looking for something to use against him. But Jesus bent down and started writing on the ground with his finger. As they persisted with their question, he looked up and said, ‘If there is one of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.’ Then be bent down and wrote on the ground again. When they heard this they went away one by one, beginning with the eldest, until Jesus was left alone with the woman, who remained standing there. He looked up and said, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ ‘No one, sir,’ she replied. ‘Neither do I condemn you,’ said Jesus, ‘go away, and don’t sin any more.’

Christ the Lord The scribes and the Pharisees – the religious leaders of Israel at the time – were constantly trying to discredit Jesus. This trap was particularly shrewd. If he forgave the woman, they could accuse him of contradicting Moses (who had taught that all women caught in adultery should be stoned to death), which was tantamount to blasphemy. If he condemned her, he would lose his popular support. Christ escapes, however, by turning the tables, showing the hypocrisy of their supposed zeal for righteousness. Christ’s uncanny ability to beat these cunning adversaries at their own game is a subtle indication of his extraordinary personality. It doesn’t directly prove his divinity, but it certainly shows him to be a Lord among men. The more we let ourselves be filled with his Spirit, the more we will share his deftness in building the Kingdom and defending the truth.

The scene must have been alarming. Picture the small crowd of pilgrims gathered around Jesus in the Temple courtyard, while the Lord speaks to them from a seat under the colonnade. The morning sunlight makes the marble sparkle and gives the atmosphere a clear, golden tint. The people are intent on Jesus; he is intent on them. Those sitting farther inside the courtyard, away from Jesus, hear a commotion outside the gate. They turn to see a large group of Pharisees and scribes dressed in their tassels and robes, with some Temple guards roughly escorting a frightened and disheveled woman. The crowd clears a path for the newcomers. They station themselves in front of the Master, who takes in the whole situation with his penetrating gaze. He sees the woman’s scared, ashamed expression; he sees the leaders of the Pharisees with their stern look of defiance; he sees the younger ones smiling with satisfaction: finally, they have Jesus in a bind. But the Lord sees beneath their facial expressions into their hearts. His wisdom and his mercy reach out to them all, defusing their self-righteousness and pardoning their guilt with merely a word. The Lord comes to save, not to destroy.

Christ the Teacher Biblical scholars have long wondered what Christ was writing on the ground as he bent down during this encounter. Some say it was the sins of all the accusers. Others say that he was merely giving them a chance to reconsider their position so that he wouldn’t have to embarrass them. In any case, the fundamental lesson is clear: we are all in need of God’s mercy; we have all “sinned and forfeited God’s glory” (Romans 3:23), and Christ knows it.

JesusChristAndAdulterousWomanIsaakAsknaziy01Significantly, the oldest accusers were the first to walk away; the younger ones were more reluctant to admit their need for God. Old and young alike, however, admitted it eventually. And so the adulteress was free to go. This brings out the corollary to the lesson that everyone is in need of God’s mercy: realizing that we need God’s mercy enables us to forgive others and treat them with the charity that Christ requires. The more profoundly we have experienced God’s forgiveness and the free gift of his mercy, which we don’t deserve, the more readily we will communicate it to others by releasing resentment and letting grudges go – not because their sins don’t matter, but because God came to save sinners.

Living on the level of God’s mercy not only fills our souls with peace and supernatural strength, it also gives lost, lonely, angry, and closed hearts a whiff of God’s love – and that’s the only thing that can save them. If we throw stones by condemning and criticizing and judging, we drive others and ourselves away from Christ; if we give others a fresh start, whether they deserve it or not, we become the peacemakers that Jesus declared blessed: “for they will be called the sons of God” (Mt 5:9).

Christ the Friend  Jesus: I came not to condemn the world, but to save the world. If I just wanted to condemn you, I would have had no reason to come. I know your sins and your weakness, and still I called you and continue to call you. Think for a moment about the one reason behind my incarnation, life, passion, death, resurrection, and ascension. Why would I follow such an itinerary? It was only because I want your friendship. Every page and word of the Gospels, every faithful action and teaching of my Church has one, single purpose: to convince you that I want to walk with you now and spend eternity showing you the splendors of my Kingdom. I am all for you, and I ask in return only one thing, the same thing I asked of this adulterous woman: trust me, accept my love, and turn away from your sin.

Christ in My Life Make me a channel of your mercy, Lord. Your mercy means that even when I offend you, you keep on loving me and wanting what’s best for me. I want to be like that. I want to be like gravity: continually pulling no matter what; I want to keep on showing people your goodness and wisdom. I want to keep on leading them to you, to keep on loving even those I find hard to love…

Forgive me, Lord, for judging my neighbor. How foolish it is for me to pass judgment and criticize and pigeonhole! Can I see their hearts? The Pharisees are quick to condemn, because it makes them feel important and superior. But I am even quicker to make excuses for myself and my failings. Teach me to see others as you see them and to speak about them as I would want them to speak about me…

I want to be able to defend your truth and the teachings of your Church, but so often I am at a loss for words. In the midst of conversations and encounters, I get flustered. Afterwards, I think up great responses. You always had the right response. You always knew what to say. Fill me with your grace and your wisdom, Lord, so that I can be your faithful friend and true ambassador…

PS: This is just one of 303 units of Fr. John’s fantastic book The Better Part. To learn more about The Better Part or to purchase in print, Kindle or iPhone editions, click here. Also, please help us get these resources to people who do not have the funds or ability to acquire them by clicking here.


Art: Cover of The Better Part used with permission. Jesús y la mujer adúltera (Jesus and the adulterous woman), Isaak Asknaziy, 19th century, PD-US author’s life plus 100 years or less, Wikimedia Commons.

About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s “The Passion of the Christ” while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, “Inside the Passion”–the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: “The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer”. His most recent books are “Seeking First the Kingdom: 30 Meditations on How to Love God with All Your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength”, and “Answers: Catholic Advice for Your Spiritual Questions”. Fr. John currently splits his time between Michigan (where he continues his writing apostolate and serves as a confessor and spiritual director at the Queen of the Family Retreat Center) and Rome, where he teaches theology at Regina Apostolorum. His online, do-it-yourself retreats are available at RCSpirituality.org, and he answers questions about the spiritual life at SpiritualDirection.com.

This article is reprinted with permission from our friends at Roman Catholic Spiritual Direction.

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