“Newness hath an evanescent beauty.” ~ Heinrich Heine
In today’s Gospel (John 8:1-11) we encounter the woman caught in an adulterous affair, poised to be stoned to death by the bloodthirsty and self-righteous crowd that stand as her accusers. As Jesus arrives on the scene, he knows that he too would soon stand before this same bloodthirsty crowd.
Adultery still brings with it the death penalty in a dozen countries, a statistic that many might find shocking. That someone should suffer such ruthless punishment for what would amount to (presumably) consensual sexual activity that allegedly doesn’t injure or impact anyone else would on the surface seem ethically outrageous, particularly in a day and age when extramarital affairs amongst the rich and famous garner non-stop headlines and a sort of oddly perverse admiration https://hubpages.com/religion-philosophy/Life-in-the-Post-6th-Commandment-Culture.
One could only imagine the ramifications if such laws were enacted in the United States. There wouldn’t be enough A-Listers left in Hollywood to star in our movies and Reality TV shows, nor enough professional athletes remaining to round out the rosters of our beloved sports teams. “How could a merciful God have allowed this?” would no doubt be the question asked by the mainstream media talking heads.
But as Father Roger Landry points out in his essay for The Catholic Thing entitled “From Death Penalty to Eternal Life,” “Such a question often betrays a lack of seriousness about the harm of sin in general and the damage of adultery in particular. How can we be soft with regard to what led to Jesus’ crucifixion? How can we be indulgent with regard to the infidelity that ruptures a covenant of love with a spouse and with God, and that severs so many families?” He goes on to point out that there is still a “death penalty,” indeed an eternal one, associated with the sin of adultery. This is why such sin is referred to as “mortal,” whether our society understands this or not. When committed with knowledge and deliberate consent, adulterers experience death in their soul by choosing to cut themselves off from the Lord of life.
So after famously saying to the angry mob in his midst “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,” promoting everyone to drop their rounded rocky weapons and depart, Jesus encounters the adulterous woman not to condemn her, but to challenge her. “Go forth, and sin no more” he tells her. So often the latter part of this vital sentence uttered by Jesus is overlooked or completely left out when discussing this passage. Jesus loves us even in our sinful state, but because of this profound love, he does not want us to remain mired in it.
In offering these simple words to this woman, Jesus was speaking a creative and healing word. He was giving her the power to “go forth,” to walk away from her former ways of life, and to begin living a new way. Clearly when Jesus spoke, God‘s power was present to do something new. By saying these words, Jesus wasn’t just forgiving the woman. He was, as Isaiah describes in the previously aforementioned first reading, making away for her through the wasteland of her sin offering her strength and restoration (Isaiah 43:19).
There are of course many lessons to be learned from this tale. We are first reminded to steer clear of accusing and judging others. Noted Catholic Priest and EWTN radio personality Father Mitch Pacwa, whenever faced with a call from a listener seeking granular information regarding a hypothetical scenario pertaining to God’s judgment, is fond of saying “Judgment is a management decision; I’m in sales.” So are we.
Another takeaway can be found in the concluding remarks from Father Landry: “The woman caught in adultery, without realizing it, was ultimately dragged not before a sympathetic arbiter whom her accusers were similarly trying to entrap, or a gallant rabbi who would sagaciously save her life, but before the loving spouse of her soul against whom she and her partner were cheating.” Rarely are we dragged in front of a crowd in a public way and condemned. Instead it’s that inner voice, the one that tells us that we are not good enough, that there is no way God can forgive us for this or that, or that we are unworthy of God‘s love. There is a reason after all that the “Great Accuser” is one of Satan’s many lurid titles.
In our 1st Reading today from Isaiah (43:16-21), we are encouraged to “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new!” In this passage we are invited to cast our past into the ocean of Jesus’ mercy. To allow him to transform and perfect us through his grace. Sin is not to be a part of this “newness.” It might have been a part of our past, maybe even a big part of our past, but it is not to be a part of our future. We are called to move on from sin . . To go forth. Saint Athanasius once said “If we follow Christ closely, we shall be allowed even on this earth to stand as it were on the threshold of the Heavenly Jerusalem, contemplating the Heavenly Feast.” We of course experience a foretaste of this heavenly feast during the celebration of the Holy Mass.
The past is dead and gone. You and I are called to live in the newness of Jesus’ love and all that he is doing for us today. As we will soon see on Good Friday, Jesus spares nothing to restore that which we have ruptured. In the midst of a harsh world that seeks to accuse, summarily condemn, and kill, Jesus instead offers forgiveness, saving and giving life where others seek something far, far different. In him we find restoration, not condemnation. In him we find newness in all things.
Go forth . . . and sin no more.