9 things you should know about the woman caught in adultery

The story of the woman caught in adultery is one of the most dramatic and beautiful stories in the Bible. Here are 9 things the popes want you to know about it.
The story of the woman caught in adultery is one of the most dramatic and beautiful stories in the Bible. Here are 9 things the popes want you to know about it. (photo: Register Files)

This weekend Pope Francis is scheduled to give his first Angelus address, a kind of address that popes give every Sunday.

He's very likely to comment on the Gospel reading of the day, which is the famous, beautiful, and dramatic story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8).

We don't know what Pope Francis will say about the passage, but previous popes have commented on it.

Here are 9 things they wanted you to know.


1. What happens in this account?

Pope Benedict said:

The Gospel passage recounts the episode of the adulterous woman in two vivid scenes:

In the first, we witness a dispute between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees concerning a woman caught in flagrant adultery who, in accordance with the prescriptions of the Book of Leviticus (cf. 20: 10), was condemned to stoning.

In the second scene, a brief but moving dialogue develops between Jesus and the sinner-woman.


2. Why is this story so dramatic?

Pope Benedict said:

Those men ask Jesus to judge the sinful woman in order "to test him" and impel him to take a false step.

The scene is full with drama: the life of that person and also his own life depend on Jesus.

Indeed, the hypocritical accusers pretend to entrust the judgement to him whereas it is actually he himself whom they wish to accuse and judge.


3. How was this supposed to "test" Jesus?

Pope Benedict said:

The pitiless accusers of the woman, citing the law of Moses, provoke Jesus - they call him "Teacher" (Didáskale) -, asking him whether it would be right to stone her.

They were aware of his mercy and his love for sinners and were curious to see how he would manage in such a case which, according to Mosaic law, was crystal clear.

John Paul II said:

They intend to show that his teaching on God’s merciful love contradicts the Law, which punished the sin of adultery with stoning.

John Paul II also said:

If he absolves the woman caught in flagrant adultery, it will be said that he has transgressed the precepts of Moses; if he condemns her, it will be said that he is inconsistent with his message of mercy towards sinners.


4. Jesus does not initially respond to their question but remains silent. Why?

John Paul II said:

By his silence he invites everyone to self-reflection.

On the one hand, he invites the woman to acknowledge the wrong committed; on the other, he invites her accusers not to shrink from an examination of conscience:  "Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her" (Jn 8: 7). 


5. While he is silent, Jesus also writes on the ground. What can we learn from this?

Pope Benedict said:

While his accusers are insistently interrogating him, Jesus bends down and starts writing with his finger on the ground.

St Augustine notes that this gesture portrays Christ as the divine legislator: In fact, God wrote the law with his finger on tablets of stone (cf. Commentary on John's Gospel,33,5). 

Thus Jesus is the Legislator, he is Justice in person.


6. Eventually, Jesus says, "Let he who is without sin cast the first stone." What does this reveal?

John Paul II said:

While this authoritative reply reminds us that it is only the Lord who can judge, it reveals the true meaning of divine mercy, which leaves open the possibility for repentance and emphasizes the great respect for the dignity of the person, which not even sin can take away.

“Go, and do not sin again” (Jn 8:11). The last words of this episode show that God does not want the sinner to die, but to repent of the evil he has committed and live.


7. Legal disputes about what the Law of Moses technically required were common in Jesus' day. What does his attitude show us?

Pope Benedict said:

Jesus does not enter into a theoretical discussion with his interlocutors on this section of Mosaic Law.

He is not concerned with winning an academic dispute about an interpretation of Mosaic Law, but his goal is to save a soul and reveal that salvation is only found in God's love.

This is why he came down to the earth, this is why he was to die on the Cross and why the Father was to raise him on the third day. . . .

St Augustine noted, commenting on John's Gospel, that:  "The Lord, in his response, neither failed to respect the law nor departed from his meekness".


8. What does this passage show us about Jesus' attitude toward sin--and to sinners?

John Paul II said:

This Gospel passage clearly teaches that Christian forgiveness is not synonymous with mere tolerance, but implies something more demanding.

It does not mean overlooking evil, or even worse, denying it.

God does not forgive evil but the individual, and he teaches us to distinguish the evil act, which as such must be condemned, from the person who has committed it, to whom he offers the possibility of changing.

While man tends to identify the sinner with his sin, closing every escape, the heavenly Father instead has sent his Son into the world to offer everyone a way to salvation.


9. How can we apply this passage to our own situations?

John Paul II said:

The woman's situation is certainly serious. But the message flows precisely from this situation:

In whatever condition we find ourselves, we can always open ourselves to conversion and receive forgiveness for our sins. "Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again" (Jn 8: 11).

On Calvary, by the supreme sacrifice of his life, the Messiah will seal for every man and woman the infinite gift of God's pardon and mercy.

John Paul II also said:

How could we see ourselves in this Gospel without feeling a surge of confidence?

How could we not recognize it as “good news” for the men and women of our day, who long to rediscover the true sense of mercy and pardon?

There is a need for Christian forgiveness, which instills hope and trust without weakening the struggle against evil.


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