In antiquity, adultery was considered one of the most severe transgressions a woman could commit. Not only was it seen as a fundamental breach of trust, but it also put into doubt the paternity of children raised in the family. A child born out of wedlock, passed off as a legitimate heir could eventually lead to transfer of family property into a stranger's hands.
Adulterous women were punished with death not only among the Israelites. The Babylonian women, caught in the act, were drowned, often with their lover. If only suspected of infidelity, they undertook "a test by river" by jumping into it. If they drowned, they were deemed guilty.
The Assyrian laws allowed the husband to either kill an adulterous wife in whatever way he wished or to disfigure her, as long as the same punishment was applied to her lover.
The unfortunate woman, standing in the middle of the righteous scribes and Pharisees, who would not even touch her for fear of ritual pollution, knew she was to be stoned to death.
In fact, the scribes and Pharisees couldn't care less about her. They were using her as bait - will Jesus deny the Law of Moses and ask for her release? Or will he deny his own teaching of love, his very nature?
'Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.'
Jesus could have answered, "Well, you have the Law, act according to it," but he is God. He knows the past and the future of all people, he knows their intentions, reads their hearts. As God, he is also discreet and noble. He does not show off his omniscience. He respects the mystery of human conscience and free will.
Instead of standing up and telling all he knew, he began to write on the ground. They did not seem to understand. Maybe they were too preoccupied with their plan to trap Jesus, maybe too excited by the presence of the victim. There is no doubt, however – they were not reading the writing on the ground. Jesus' message was not getting through.
They needed help in this, so Jesus said: "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her."
Then he bent down and kept on writing. The oldest of the accusers left first. They must have stood closest to Jesus and read the most. If, as is usually assumed, he was writing the list of their most secret, hidden sins or some other painful events, they must have forgotten their judgment on the young woman. Who knows? Maybe they no longer felt they had the right to judge and kill her.
If Jesus stood today in Edmonton's courthouse and wrote on the ground, what would we read?
"Father – you hate your daughter for bringing shame upon the family, but didn't you leave that family for another woman when she was 10? Do you know how much that little girl loved you? How she waited for your phone calls, brief visits? You broke her heart."
"Mother – you judge her so harshly now, but did you bring your 'boyfriends" home when she was 13, and did you not take her to Morgentaler's clinic for an abortion when she was 14 to 'get rid of trouble and save her future'? You broke her heart, too."
"Babysitter – do you remember how you let her watch those violent, pornographic movies when she was nine?"
"School friend – wasn't it you who got her into drink and gave her the first dose of drugs?"
"Teacher – you told her that only fools believe in God, and that God does not exist. You were the highest authority for her at that time as her parents had failed her. After what you told her, how was she to find me? You deprived her of the only love that could cure her."
We would read the words on the ground and we would sneak out of court, ashamed, teary, angry. Then, the accused would face the Lord and his love and forgiveness.
"Where are they? Has no one condemned you?"
"No one, Lord."
"Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again."
We tend to judge others, rarely for their benefit, more often for our own self-glorification or simply, vengeance.
We stand with stones held firmly in hand, ready and searching for the soft spot to strike.
Jesus, too, is standing close by, except that he is bent over the ground and we do not notice him. Just as 2,000 years ago, he keeps writing, writing, hoping that we will look at his words at last, remember our sins and understand that we all have a share in the sins of others, especially family and friends, all those whose lives we touch.
Lenten Confession is one of the best occasions for taking a close look at the collateral damage of the lack of God's grace in our lives.
It is also a chance to do some repairs, while the house is still standing. This may be a firm resolution to attend each Sunday Mass with whole family in tow, or to look into that Confirmation of the youngest child that somehow is being delayed, year after year. If it happens that the family has already disintegrated, there is always that enormous power of prayer, especially with Mary, Jesus' mother, as a guide and intercessor.