5th Sunday of Lent
In the 12th century, the Cistercian abbot St Aelred had a few thoughts on this morning’s Gospel. He wrote: “Call to mind the woman who was taken in adultery and what Jesus did and said when he was asked to give sentence. For he wrote on the earth, in order to show them up as of the earth rather than of heaven, and then said: ‘Let him among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.’
“But when the words struck them all with terror and drove them out of the Temple, imagine how kind were his eyes as he turned to her, how gentle and tender was the voice with which he pronounced his sentence of absolution. Think how he would have sighed, how he would have wept as he said: ‘Has no one condemned you, woman? Neither shall I condemn you.’
“Happy was the woman”, St Aelred continues, “in this adultery, forgiven as she was for the past and assured for the future. Good Jesus, when it is you who say: ‘I will not condemn’, who else will condemn? When it is God who justifies, who is there who will condemn? Yet the words which you added must not be overlooked: ‘Go, and do not sin any more.’”
St Aelred ends his meditation there, but I would like to carry it a bit further. How could our Lord say to the woman, “Go, and from now on do not sin any more”? He knew what she was going back to – a life of regret, of suspicion, probably of contempt, and of everything that makes people bitter and drives them on to sin. Yet he implies that a perfectly normal result of forgiveness is renunciation of sin. Others might treat her as a hopeless sinner; he was telling her that it was possible not to sin any more.
The scene in this morning’s Gospel is meant to teach us that we are all sinners, but that forgiveness makes it possible for us too not to sin any more. The way to a new life is through forgiveness. Maybe we have gone to confession and received absolution, but if we don’t come out of it with a deeper understanding of how serious sin is, and how holy Jesus is for forgiving us, then our separation from sin will last only until the next great temptation.
We don’t know what became of this woman, but she would certainly have had good reason to think of Jesus with reverence and affection, and gratitude for giving her a chance at a new life. And the more she thought of him and how he came into her life, the more clearly she would have seen how different Jesus was from everyone else she knew. How life-giving it was to look at herself as Jesus saw her!
For us too, an abiding love for Jesus is the only thing that makes it possible not to sin any more. We may be convinced that he is all he claims to be, we may believe all that the Church teaches about him, but all this belief is not enough to make us saints. What is needed is an addiction to Jesus, a real personal love that will prompt us always to seek out his will in every situation, and to make our life a part of his. It is our other addictions that have led us astray, and it is by a new addiction to Jesus that we can be restored.
So long as our knowledge of Christ is in our head only, it may do us some good, but it will not make new creatures of us. To accomplish that, we have to give Christ permission to take possession of our heart. Like the woman taken in adultery, like St Paul who persecuted the Church, we too need to listen to the prophet Isaiah: “remember not the events of the past”, but forget what lies behind and strain forward to what lies ahead – a new and endless life with the forgiven sinners whom Christ has made saints, that they might announce his praise.