How confrontational do we read Jesus in the face of sexual sin? The story of his encounter with the adulterer and her accusers may be illustrative, or troubling and dismissed. Tattletales come off disappointed and frustrated–and Jesus didn’t even tell them off directly.
As for the Lord’s final word when he is alone with the accused, he seems very gentle. And he tells her not to sin any more. What does he mean? All sin? Just this sexual sin? For ever?
Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area,
and all the people started coming to him,
and he sat down and taught them.
Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman
who had been caught in adultery
and made her stand in the middle.
They said to him,
“Teacher, this woman was caught
in the very act of committing adultery.
Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.
So what do you say?”
They said this to test him,
so that they could have some charge to bring against him.
Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.
But when they continued asking him,
he straightened up and said to them,
“Let the one among you who is without sin
be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Again he bent down and wrote on the ground.
And in response, they went away one by one,
beginning with the elders.
So he was left alone with the woman before him.
Then Jesus straightened up and said to her,
“Woman, where are they?
Has no one condemned you?”
She replied, “No one, sir.”
Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.
Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
We can get into an involved Bible study on this passage. And with the guidance of a fine teacher, it might even be interesting and edifying.
In the sacramental setting, I find myself drawn to the simple conversation at the end. Jesus declines to condemn the sinner, despite having the power to do so by his own standards. He inquires of her understanding of this: does she realize she is not condemned? And she accurately affirms this.
The Lord’s encounter is complete, so he tells her to depart, but not to sin “any more.” Is this a hope for us flawed human beings? What is Jesus saying? Is it possible to avoid sin just by being not-condemned and getting the word from the Lord?
Maybe that’s reading too much into the script. I was thinking back to week 6 of the Spiritual Exercises as presented here:
For all of us, it should be noted that the very natural response to an unveiled exploration of our willful sinfulness is genuine shame. It is a real grace of this week, but only the first part of it. The second part is the surprising realization that I know God more intimately when I am overwhelmed with God’s love for me there — as a sinner. The two graces go together. If I am determined to avoid the feeling of shame, I make it very difficult for God to give me the power of the second grace.
We don’t see into the woman’s heart. We assume Jesus did. Shame registers, but a believer quickly notices and acknowledges God’s love. That this woman appears to get off scot-free isn’t a concern to me. Too many believers get sucked into the cycle of shame. That could be a tendency to narcissism, blocking the notion that God and his love and grace are ever so much greater than anything we could possibly throw back at him.
One last thing: I think Jesus’s example is generally fitting when we are confronted by sin incarnate in a person. When it is I who sin, we can (and probably should) address this with a sense of vigor and activism. When it is the other, the Lord’s example is one of patience, of invitation, and then of mercy.