‘Go, and sin no more’
In the familiar gospel account of the woman caught in adultery that we read on Sunday, the scribes and the Pharisees aren’t actually very interested in the poor woman. She is, rather, a trap they wish to use to test Jesus, to trip him up, to expose him and thus condemn him, as Fr Dominic pointed out in his sermon. If the Lord agrees with their judgment of the woman, they can report him to the Roman authorities, who had stripped the Jewish people of their ability to put criminals to death, and have him condemned as a traitor to the state. If he doesn’t agree to a punishment which the Law seemingly demands, then he is a traitor to the Law and can thus be dismissed as a religious leader and would lose his credibility in the eyes of the people.
But insofar as they are interested in her, it is only because of her sin. Their view is such a common human way of treating sin — or rather, of treating sinners. You are defined by your sin. If you have stolen something, then you are a thief. If you have killed someone, then you are a murderer. Nothing that happens beyond that point can change that. And you have become defined by the worst actions of your life. It is an end of life — the fact that the crowd wants to stone the woman is the best example of this — they want to end her life at that point, and the lowest point. All sins become unforgivable.
Interestingly, it is the sinners in the story who do the condemning. You might think that human beings, sinful man, would be more prepared to be tolerant and understanding towards the sins of others, because we have experienced them ourselves. We all know how easy it is to fall into sin. But it is sinful man who is cruel and vengeful. Perhaps it is because we are just as quick to define ourselves by our own sins. We look at ourselves in the same way, with the same judgemental eye, and the only reason we excuse our sins so often is because we are unable to see life beyond them. It is not the sinless who throw the first stones, it is the sinful. We are imprisoned by our weakness and our guilt and our shame, and we are jolly well going to make sure others are too.
Christ has no time for this situation of condemnation and blame. Where the scribes and the Pharisees see only the sin and ignore the person, he sees the person and is prepared to dismiss the sin. He sees that sin does not define us, that we can be raised to a new life, that we can be “ransomed, healed, restored, forgiven”. Not that sin is not bad, not sinful, but that it is not the final word. It is not the end. It can be absolved. It can be put very firmly in the past. Notice that the woman does not ask for forgiveness, nor does the Lord say, “Your sins are forgiven”. He loves her because she is lovable, despite her sinfulness. Like the father of the prodigal son, Christ’s love is not conditional on the woman being good or bad. Her sin is forgiven, and Jesus invites her to respond, with conversion to a new way of life: “Go, and sin no more”.
God looks at us and loves us. And he forgives us. But our response to that love must be to go and sin no more, to acknowledge our mistakes and faults, our sins and our failures to love. A new way of life means letting go of the old way: the way of wounds and sins, past mistakes, regret and bitterness, lingering guilt and shame that still makes our cheeks blush and our stomachs churn. That new way of life means not allowing the worst things we do define us, but accepting the offer, made today and every day, to be made new through that closeness to Christ which is our redemption.
During these remaining days of Lent, as we enter Passiontide and contemplate the suffering and death of our Lord, we are challenged to bury our old selves, our sinful damaged pasts, so that we rise with Christ in a new way and to a new life.
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