Bishop of Lake Charles
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
March 21, 2010
Fifth Sunday of Lent
“Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” John 8:11
In the Gospel account of the woman caught in adultery, our attention easily becomes focused on the challenge of Our Lord: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). The penalty for adultery was death by stoning. The Book of Deuteronomy required furthermore that the witnesses of the crime be the first to throw stones. “At the execution, the witnesses are to be the first to raise their hands…” (Deuteronomy 17:7). We might say that Jesus in the Gospel is changing the law. The first to throw stones are to be not the witnesses of the crime but instead those who are without sin. Jesus raises the bar, as it were, on the qualifications of the executioner. The standard becomes so high, in fact, that both innocence and mercy are required.
So near to Holy Week, we must ask ourselves the question why the Church might choose this Gospel to read. In another cycle of readings, it would be the Gospel of the raising of Lazarus (John 11). In this Gospel reading, Jesus works the incredible miracle of raising his friend from the dead. Jesus triumphantly proclaims to Martha, “I am the resurrection and the life; whoever believes in me, even if he dies, will live, and everyone who lives and believes in me will never die” (John 11:25-26). So much is communicated here.
Jesus reminds us that He has power over death because He is life. He does not merely teach this, He demonstrates it. He raises Lazarus from the dead, because He wants to show us that even though He will experience death, He will ultimately be victorious. But I think there is still more.
The vocation of Jesus is to embrace death, Life embracing Death. He willingly submits to the trials and tribulations of the Sanhedrin and Pilate, the scourging by the Roman soldiers, the jeers of the people, the nailing to the cross, the torments of the crowd, and the final gasp—“It is finished” (John 19:30). When Jesus utters those words, “It is finished,” He is saying that the embracing of death is finished. He has done everything the Father wanted Him to do in this act of sacrifice. Certainly His work is not finished. The Redemption is to proceed and manifest itself in the splendor of the Resurrection, but the cross is a necessary component and the embracing of death is essential.
Imagine yourself Lazarus or the woman caught in adultery. Both of them would have thought their lives ended. So would everyone else. In the case of Lazarus, he had breathed his last after a prolonged illness. In the case of the woman, she is an accused “on death row.” Both are dead, one in fact, the other by decree. Jesus offers them life. For Lazarus life comes after the triumphant, “Lazarus, come out!” (John 11:43). For the woman life comes with an admonition: “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more” (John 8:11).
On my part, I cannot identify with Lazarus, because to the best of my knowledge I have never been so near to death. However, we have all known the death of sin. And I know that when I confess my sins to God in the presence of the one whom He has ordained to speak the words of Jesus himself, I hear the merciful words spoken to the woman in the Gospel: “Go, and from now on do not sin.”
There is a link between physical and spiritual death. This link existed from the time of Adam and Eve. Jesus Christ came, however, to sever that link, and He did so by embracing physical death and restoring life. In the case of the spiritual death brought by sin, He made life possible by extending the forgiveness of God to those who sought it. The woman caught in adultery never asked for forgiveness. Her fear, as she stood trembling before the accusers and Jesus, was appeal enough. Her humiliation and the realization of the inevitable were her cry for mercy. And to this Jesus responded. How much more will He respond to the heart of a contrite sinner, who in sorrow turns to Him acknowledging the chaos and death that sin has brought to his or her life?
All of this mercy flows from the One who embraced death. The Scriptures and the liturgy of our Church speak of this as “obedience to the cross.” As Jesus is commanding the woman caught in adultery to go and sin no more, He is commanding her obedience to the will of God. By His “obedience to the cross,” Jesus will lead by example. In the words of our Letter to the Hebrews: “Son though he was, he learned obedience from what he suffered; and when he was made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him” (Hebrews 5:8-9).