Passion Sunday is the fifth Sunday of Lent, marking the beginning of Passiontide.
One of Pope Francis’ favourite statements is: “Jesus is the human face of the Father’s mercy.” That beautiful summation of the identity of Jesus came to mind when I reflected on this Sunday’s Gospel.
The story of the woman caught in adultery — as it is often referred to — is found in John’s Gospel, but many scholars believe it may have been originally part of Luke’s Gospel.
This is not the only case in the Gospels where Jesus acts with extraordinary sensitivity on behalf of a woman whom others seek to embarrass. The debate about its setting in early Christian tradition is of minor consequence when one considers the impact of these accounts and the insight they give us about Jesus himself.
We all know this remarkable story. While Jesus is teaching the crowds in the courtyard of the Temple, his opponents try to catch him off guard. With remarkable insensitivity, they make a woman accused of adultery stand in the middle of the crowd around Jesus and challenge him: “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such a woman. So what do you say?”
One can imagine the fear and shame this woman must have felt. And where was the man who supposedly was with her?
At any point in history, this would be an occasion for terror, but what about in a traditional culture where such actions were severely sanctioned?
Jesus ignores their question and begins tracing some words on the ground with his finger (What words? We don’t know). His riposte leaves them speechless: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Silenced, they being to slip away, beginning with the eldest — none of them daring to claim they are sinless in front of the witnessing crowd.
In the end, Jesus and the woman are alone. “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir.” “Then neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”
Who can imagine what she felt to be treated with such respect by this revered teacher, such tenderness at a moment of shame and cruelty, such daring kindness overturning the scorn of her accusers?
This is not the only such time in the Gospels. Luke reports the account of a woman, branded as a “woman of the city” by Jesus’ host Simon, who breaks into the banquet hall and lavishes Jesus with her affection: bathing his feet with her tears, wiping them dry with her hair, anointing his feet with precious ointment. All the while, the other guests recoil in embarrassment at this display: “If this man were a prophet, he would know who and what sort of woman this is who is touching him, that she is a sinner.”
Of course, Jesus did know who she was and loved her for it. There must be a background story here — a woman so choked with guilt and remorse for some reason unknown to us but encountering in Jesus unconditional forgiveness. “Go in peace,” he tells her at the end.
There are other stories, too. Matthew and Mark tell of the woman who anoints Jesus’ head with precious ointment on the eve of his arrest and, once again, bystanders cluck with disapproval at such a “waste.” But Jesus defends her: “She has done a beautiful thing for me; she has anointed my body for burial.” He promises that wherever the Gospel is preached, it will be preached “in memory of her!”
John’s Gospel tells of Jesus’ respectful, almost playful, interaction with the Samaritan woman at the well, a woman with a series of broken marriages, isolated from her village, but not from Jesus. She becomes a model of one who gives witness about Jesus to others.
Unfortunately, we know that harassment and shaming of those considered vulnerable are not cruelties confined to first-century Greco-Roman culture. We do it ourselves today. The invitatory for this Sunday gives us the proper Lenten response: “Even now, says the Lord, return to me with your whole heart, for I am gracious and merciful.”
Father Donald Senior CP. is president emeritus, chancellor and professor of New Testament studies at Catholic Theological Union, 5401 S. Cornell Ave.
This post is kindly reproduced from this Chicago Catholic article first posted on 16 March 2022.