JOHN 8: 1-11 LINK TO USCCB ALL THREE READINGS
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 anymore.”
There is a break in the narrative of St. Luke, as this coming Sunday’s Gospel recalls the episode of Jesus and the adulterous woman brought to him by the scribes and Pharisees as written by St. John. Depending on which source you use privately, this entire text may or may not be bracketed. The USCCB text here does not show brackets, but your household bible like my New American Bible may show all eleven lines in brackets.
Brackets in a Bible have technical purposes. They are the equivalent of those highway signs that read “construction ahead” (or in Pennsylvania, “Temporary Inconvenience for Permanent Improvement.”) You want to watch the road a little more closely for the unusual. Brackets are most commonly seen in missalettes or worship aids as an indicator that for some reason—usually length—only a portion of a full reading need be proclaimed at a particular Mass. The priest or deacon may omit the text in brackets. The Church give the celebrant an option of shorter or longer versions on some Sundays. A few times I have written a Tuesday commentary here on the blogsite for the entire text of a Sunday, but then my own parish went with the shortened version.
In a full Bible, brackets indicate that there is some question about the intended word or phrase. There is no such thing as an “original Bible.” What we hold in our hands is a compilation of thousands upon thousands of manuscripts, parchments, scrolls, even fragments. Problems arise when, say, 53% of extant texts use one phrasing and 47% use another. Editors of a Bible will put the more likely reading in the narrative but then bracket that text, putting the variant reading at the bottom of the page in a footnote. The principle of Biblical inerrancy (truth) applies to a biblical book as a whole and the intent of the divinely inspired author, not to the exactitude of every word.
But in Sunday’s reading the entire episode is bracketed, which indicates that the Church has reflected for a long time about this text. I checked two of the most respected biblical commentaries, the venerable Anchor Bible commentary series (John vol. 1, Raymond E. Brown) and my trusty Jerome Biblical Commentary. Both sources concur with the footnote from the New American Bible regarding Sunday’s Gospel: “The story of the adulteress is missing from the best early Greek manuscripts. Where it does appear, it is found in different places in different manuscripts… [including after Luke 21:38!]. It seems to have been preserved largely in Western and Latin circles. There are many non-Johannine features in the language, and there are also many doubtful readings. It appears in Jerome’s Vulgate. However, it is certainly out of place here: it fits better with the general situation in Luke 21:38. The Catholic Church accepts it as inspired Scripture.” (NAB, footnote 7:53ff)
So in a strange way we are back at least to the spirit of the narrative of St. Luke. But there is one more useful point from the resources that would seem to help our personal reflection, and that is the possible answer to why this portion of John’s or Luke’s Gospel, reflecting an ancient story of Jesus, appears so late in history, relatively speaking? The Anchor Bible commentary offers this explanation: “The ease with which Jesus forgave the adulteress was hard to reconcile with the stern penitential discipline in vogue in the early Church.” (335) This explanation concurs very well with what we know of third century Church morality and the formative rite of the Sacrament of Penance—the three grave sins of the time being adultery, apostasy, and murder. (The Monday blogs will expand this.)
It struck me that in this late stage of Lent, and in the midst of a Year of Mercy proclaimed by the Church, we will hear a Gospel story of mercy that even the Church took nearly four centuries to accept into its liturgies. Irony does not deflate spirituality; in these circumstances, quite the opposite.
In the text as it stands today, Jesus is put to the test by his enemies regarding what was a capital offense with a punishment of stoning. In truth the bulk of the story focuses on the intentions of the accusers. The Gospel is very clear that the married woman was “caught in the very act,” so her guilt or innocence is not the question. The actual question is conspiracy: Jewish Law is clear that there must be two witnesses to the accusation. This is not a hearsay report. Two men put themselves in position to witness an act of intercourse; were they hiding behind a curtain? Peering in through the roof?
This episode has “set-up” written all over it. The Anchor commentary includes a theory that one of the two witnesses is the “aggrieved” husband, and that what Jesus wrote on the ground was a passage from Exodus 23, “You shall not join hands with a wicked man (to be a malicious witness.)” It is impossible to know exactly what Jesus wrote, but there is more clarity in his observation that the sinless man amongst them should cast the first stone. Again the Anchor commentary is very helpful: Jesus was not denying the proper procedures of law and justice, but in this case he was essentially putting down mob rule, since no one remained to prosecute what Jesus had exposed as an ill-intentioned plot, even where an actual transgression of the law had occurred.
I cannot help but think back two years to the now famous observation of Pope Francis before a press gathering on a plane, “Who am I to judge?” The laws of God are eternal—but never defended by mob violence. It must be with clean hands and clean hearts that we make our judgments, and if we are to err, best it be on the side of compassion.