Go and Sin No More

In a distracting world, finding time to adequately reflect on the Gospels can be a challenge. Even when carefully focusing during Mass readings and sermons, it’s easy to overlook how some Gospels apply to our daily lives.

Yet, upon deeper reflection, a single Gospel can be a treasure trove of insights into our Faith. It also can guide us in responding to life’s challenges. A good example is the Gospel of John 8: 1-11, concerning the Woman Caught in Adultery.

The story, very familiar to most Catholics, involves an adulteress who is brought to Jesus by scribes and Pharisees, her captors. They know that Jesus preaches mercy, and they know the Law of Moses prescribes a penalty of stoning for her transgression.

They are testing Jesus, in hopes that He will defy either His own teachings or the law of Moses. Our Lord bends down and writes on the ground, a reminder that the law they refer to was written by the hand of God. He then straightens and says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

One by one the accusers leave. Jesus says, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replies, “No one, sir.” And He says, “Neither do I condemn you…. Go on your way, and sin no more.”

In a quick reflection, we see Jesus as wise and merciful, the scribes and Pharisees deceitful and judgmental. We appreciate a scriptural message on judgement and mercy, then move on to other matters.

Yet, a deeper reflection yields more insight into our world.

First, rather than simply having a detached viewpoint, we might recognize that, like the adulteress, we too are sinners; and like the scribes and Pharisees, we too need to be reminded of our own shortcomings. In daily routines, how often do we minimize our own transgressions, while showing little patience for the faults of others? In so doing, we emulate the scribes and Pharisees. How better it would be to refrain from judging others, even on small matters, knowing “they” could easily be “us.”

The Gospel also calls for us to be true agents of mercy. Rather than turning away when witnessing mistreatment of others, we are called to imitate Our Lord in word and deed. His merciful intervention serves as a guide for responding in a loving way.

A difficult contemporary challenge is differentiating between people and behaviors. For many, there is an assumption that to be fully accepting of others means to be fully accepting of their behaviors.

As Catholics, we are called not just to accept everyone, but to love them, since all people are created in the image of God. However, as Thomas Aquinas taught, to love is to will the good of the other. If a person’s behavior is harmful to themselves and an affront to God, love requires not accepting that behavior. Rather, we are called to help the person find a better path to follow. True love refuses to accept the decay of sin, calling instead for redemption through Christ’s teachings.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus did not defend an adulterous lifestyle, but rather a precious soul who had fallen into sin. God’s mercy brought the woman forgiveness, offering a path of repentance and salvation, while rejecting a life of sin. We are called to be just as accepting and forgiving of others, and just as vigilant against sinful choices.

In a world where truth is often viewed as subjective, it can be difficult to publicly speak and act according to Gospel teachings. Imagine suddenly being drawn into John’s Gospel. Would we have moved to the background and stayed uninvolved?… or mingled with the scribes and Pharisees to avoid being singled out?…or embraced and defended the accused woman until God’s mercy was shown?

While we can only speculate on how we might have acted then, today judgements, condemnations, threats and poor treatment are going on around us all the time. Dare we speak the truth on those occasions, as Jesus did, and dare we offer His mercy, not just to the innocent, but to the guilty and condemned?

Pope Francis has been a strong advocate for Catholic mercy, and for not being judgmental of others. Sometimes his advocacy is misinterpreted, with an assumption that welcoming sinners into the Church also means welcoming sinful lifestyles. Nothing could be more contrary to Gospel teaching. All should be welcomed into the Church as penitents and lovers, with a concordant desire to forsake sinful behavior.

Christ’s parting words to the woman He forgives are not a frivolous, “Live as you choose and have a nice day!” Rather, He offers her a heavenly admonition, “Go on your way, and sin no more.”

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John Litwinovich is a Secular Franciscan, a member of the Little Portion Fraternity in Granite Bay, California. With a background as a human services administrator and Peace Corps and VISTA volunteer, his current focus is Catholic writing, travel and research, spending portions of most years in Italy. He is author of the Assisi Walking Adventure Guide and other faith-based works.

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