5th Sunday in Lent

This coming Sunday marks the fifth Sunday in Lent (Year C; but if you are attending a Mass at which one of the RCIA scrutinies is celebrating, you will hear readings other readings).You can read a complete commentary on this gospel here.

The story focuses on the murderous impulse of “all the people” (v.2) when the scribes and Pharisees present “a woman who had been caught in adultery ” (v.3). The intention of the scribes and Pharisee was to simply use the woman and her circumstances “so that they could have some charge to bring against [Jesus]” (v.6) in order to fulfill their own murderous intent against Jesus (7:1). Their immediate goal is to trap Jesus between the requirements of the Law (cf. Lev 24:1-6 and Dt 13:10; 17:2-7) and his teaching of forgiveness and reconciliation. Will Jesus show himself to be a true son of Moses and do what the Law requires, i.e. agree that stoning the woman is the God-intended course of action? Will he defy the law and offer forgiveness.

The story unfolds in four stages:

  • The Setting of the Scene (8:1-8:2)
  • The Challenge of the Jewish Leaders (8:3-6)
  • Jesus Response to the Leaders (8:7-9)
  • Jesus’ Reconciliation of the Woman (8:10-11)

The Setting of the Scene. In John 7 the Feast of Tabernacles is underway. Jesus has been publically teaching in the Temple precincts, arousing the interest of the people and the concern of the Jewish religious leadership.  The leadership meets together, presumably took place on the last (and seventh) day of the feast. They are discussing what to do with Jesus – and murder seems to be on their minds (7:1).  Early the next day, Jesus is coming early to the temple to teach on the morning of the added eighth day of the feast, which was a day of rest (Lev 23:39).

The Challenge of the Jewish Leaders. This stage of the story describes the challenge presented to Jesus by the Jewish leaders, but also infers things about their treatment of the woman, which is callous and demeaning. If she had committed adultery the previous evening , then have these opponents had been holding her during the night and waiting for Jesus to show up in order to use her to test him? Has been apprehended in the early hours of the morning? In either case her fear would have been palpitable.  Putting her in the midst of the crowd would have added public humiliation.

The scene is a mixture of zealous righteousness that seeks to enact the law without pardon or quarter, the leadership who want to trap Jesus between mercy and the Law, and a woman caught in sin, fearing for her life.  The Law commands a stoning to death as punishment for her transgressions. More precisely the law speaks of the death of both the man and the woman involved (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22-24). The law makes it clear that stoning could only take place after a careful trial, which included the chance for the condemned to confess his or her wrong (m. Sanhedrin 6:1-4).

True righteousness would have some measure of concern for her soul. True righteousness would be free from deceitfulness, not hiding behind loyalty to Moses for other intentions. Since the law says both the man and the woman who commit adultery are to be killed, we are left wondering why the man was not brought in as well. It may be that he had escaped, but the fact that only the woman is brought raises suspicions and does not speak well of the  true object of their zeal.

This situation is apparently just an attempt to entrap Jesus (v. 6). If he is lax toward the law, then he is condemned. But if he holds a strict line, then he has allowed them to prevail in their merciless treatment of this woman and has opened himself up to trouble from the Romans, for he will be held responsible if the stoning proceeds. The leaders of Israel are putting God to the test in the person of his Son, repeating the Israelites’ historical pattern on more than one occasion in the wilderness at Meribah and Massah (Ex 17:2; Num 20:13; cf. Deut 6:16; Ps 95:8-9; 106:14).

You can read a complete commentary on this gospel here.


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