Lectio notes: John 8:1-11

Pieter Bruegel, Oil on panel, 24cm x 34cm. Courtauld Institute Galleries, London


Today's text is the important - and rather mysterious (what was Jesus writing on the ground?) - story of the woman taken in adultery, an incident that is often misused today by liberals in order to (falsely) claim that continuing to sin is acceptable.

Some, from the sixteenth century onwards, have argued that this passage was a later addition to the text, and not by St John, because it was not included in some early manuscripts.  However, newly discovered early patristic manuscripts have vindicated the Vulgate version of the text.

Read

The New Advent page with the Greek, Latin and English can be found here.  You can hear the Latin read here and the Greek here.

The Latin:

Jesus autem perrexit in montem Oliveti: 2 et diluculo iterum venit in templum, et omnis populus venit ad eum, et sedens docebat eos. 3 Adducunt autem scribæ et pharisæi mulierem in adulterio deprehensam: et statuerunt eam in medio, 4 et dixerunt ei: Magister, hæc mulier modo deprehensa est in adulterio. 5 In lege autem Moyses mandavit nobis hujusmodi lapidare. Tu ergo quid dicis? 6 Hoc autem dicebant tentantes eum, ut possent accusare eum. Jesus autem inclinans se deorsum, digito scribebat in terra. 7 Cum ergo perseverarent interrogantes eum, erexit se, et dixit eis: Qui sine peccato est vestrum, primus in illam lapidem mittat. 8 Et iterum se inclinans, scribebat in terra. 9 Audientes autem unus post unum exibant, incipientes a senioribus: et remansit solus Jesus, et mulier in medio stans. 10 Erigens autem se Jesus, dixit ei: Mulier, ubi sunt qui te accusabant? nemo te condemnavit? 11 Quæ dixit: Nemo, Domine. Dixit autem Jesus: Nec ego te condemnabo: vade, et jam amplius noli peccare.

The English:

And Jesus went unto mount Olivet. [2] And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came to him, and sitting down he taught them. [3] And the scribes and the Pharisees bring unto him a woman taken in adultery: and they set her in the midst, [4] And said to him: Master, this woman was even now taken in adultery. [5] Now Moses in the law commanded us to stone such a one. But what sayest thou? [6] And this they said tempting him, that they might accuse him. But Jesus bowing himself down, wrote with his finger on the ground. [7] When therefore they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said to them: He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. [8] And again stooping down, he wrote on the ground. [9] But they hearing this, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest. And Jesus alone remained, and the woman standing in the midst. [10] Then Jesus lifting up himself, said to her: Woman, where are they that accused thee? Hath no man condemned thee? [11] Who said: No man, Lord. And Jesus said: Neither will I condemn thee. Go, and now sin no more.

Study

There are a number of important details to this story.  First the location, the mount of Olives:

ALCUIN. Our Lord at the time of His passion used to spend the day in Jerusalem, preaching in the temple, and performing miracles, and return in the evening to Bethany, where He lodged with the sisters of Lazarus. Thus on the last day of the feast, having, according to His wont, preached the whole day in the temple, in the evening He went to the mount of Olives.

AUG. And where ought Christ to teach, except on the mount of Olives; on the mount of ointment, on the mount of chrism. For the name Christ is from chrism, chrism being the Greek word for unction. He has anointed us, for wrestling with the devil.  

 ALCUIN. The anointing with oil is a relief to the limbs, when wearied and in pain. The mount of Olives also denotes the height of our Lord's pity, olive in the Greek signifying pity. The qualities of oil are such as to fit in to this mystical meaning. For it floats above all other liquids: and the Psalmist says, Your mercy is over all Your works. And early in the morning, He came again into the temple: i.e. to denote the giving and unfolding of His mercy, i.e. the now dawning light of the New Testament in the faithful, that is, in His temple. His returning early in the morning, signifies the new rise of grace.  

Secondly, Jesus is sitting on the ground, teaching.  But as usual, the Pharisees were setting out to trap him:

BEDE. And next it is signified, that after He began to dwell by grace in His temple, i.e. in the Church, men from all nations would believe in Him: And all the people came to Him, and He sat down and taught them. 

ALCUIN. The sitting down, represents the humility of His incarnation. And the people came to Him, when He sat down, i.e. after taking up human nature, and thereby becoming visible, many began to hear and believe on Him, only knowing Him as their friend and neighbor. But while these kind and simple persons are full of admiration at our Lord's discourse, the Scribes and Pharisees put questions to Him, not for the sake of instruction, but only to entangle the truth in their nets: And the Scribes and Pharisees brought to Him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst, they say to Him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, if the very act. 

AUG. They had remarked upon, Him already, as being over lenient. Of Him indeed it had I been prophesied, Ride on because of the word of truth, of meekness, and of righteousness. So as a teacher He exhibited truth, as a deliverer meekness, as a judge righteousness. When He spoke, His truth was acknowledged; when against His enemies He used no violence, His meekness was praised. So they raised the scandal on the score of justice For they said among themselves, If He decide to let her go He will not do justice; for the law cannot command what is unjust: Now Moses in the law commanded as, that such should be stoned: but to maintain His meekness, which has made Him already so acceptable to the people, He must decide to let her go. Wherefore they demand His opinion: And what say You? hoping to find an occasion to accuse Him, as a transgressor of the law: And this they said tempting Him, that they might have to accuse Him. 

What is the significance of Jesus writing on the ground?  The Fathers suggest it is a reminder that he himself is the divine legislator:

AUG. As if to signify that such persons were to be written in earth, not in heaven, where He told His disciples they should rejoice they were v written. Or His bowing His head (to write on the ground), is an expression of humility; the writing on the ground signifying that His law was written on the earth which bore fruit, not on the barren stone, as before. 

ALCUIN. The ground denotes the human heart, which yields the fruit either of good or of bad actions: the finger jointed and flexible, discretion. He instructs us then, when we see any faults in our neighbors, not immediately and rashly to condemn them, but after searching our own hearts to begin with, to examine them attentively with the finger of discretion. 

BEDE. His writing with His finger on the ground perhaps showed, that it was He who had written the law on stone.

The key to the story is, perhaps, that in seeking to save the soul of the woman, and show her mercy, Jesus doesn't seek to contradict the law, but rather he pierces men's hearts, bringing all to consider the justice we must ultimately face:

AUG. He did not say, Stone her not, lest He should seem to speak contrary to the law. But God forbid that He should say, Stone her; for He came not to destroy that which He found, but to seek that which was lost. What then did He answer? He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. This is the voice of justice. Let the sinner be punished, but not by sinners; the law carried into effect, but not by transgressors of the law. 

GREG. For he who judges not himself first, cannot know how to judge correctly in the case of another. For though He know what the offense is, from being told, yet He cannot judge of another's deserts, who supposing himself innocent, will not apply the rule of justice to himself.

AUG. Having with the weapon of justice smitten them, He deigned not even to look on the fallen, but averted His eyes: And again He stooped down, and wrote on the ground. 

ALCUIN. This is like our Lord; while His eyes are fixed, and He seems attending to something else, He gives the bystanders an opportunity of retiring: a tacit admonition to us to consider always both before we condemn a brother for a sin, and after we have punished him, whether we are not guilty ourselves of the same fault, or others as bad.

AUG. Thus smitten then with the voice of justice, as with a weapon, they examine themselves, find themselves guilty, and one by one retire: And they which heard it, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest. 

GLOSS. The more guilty of them, perhaps, or those who were more conscious of their faults.

The crucial words though, omitted from so many modern analyses, is the instruction to sin no more:

AUG. ...We heard above the voice of justice; let us hear now that of mercy: Jesus said to her, Neither do I condemn you; I, who you feared would condemn you, because You found no fault in me. What then Lord? Do You favor sin? No, surely. Listen to what follows, Go, and sin no more. So then our Lord condemned sin, but not the sinner. For did He favor sin, He would have said, Go, and live as you will: depend on my deliverance: howsoever great your sins be, it matters not: I will deliver you from hell, and its tormentors. But He did not say this. Let those attend, who love the Lord's mercy, and fear His truth. Truly, Gracious and righteous is the Lord.

Meditation

Does this passage instruct us 'not to judge', or to abandon the administration of justice?  Surely not.

But it is a reminder that right motives are important for an action to be morally right - the woman's accusers were out not for justice, but to entrap Jesus.

They were thwarted because Jesus' mission for his first coming was not judgment - though his mission for his second coming will be - but to seek the salvation of souls.

And two sets of souls were potentially saved here - the woman of course, but also the accusers who realise their own guilt.

The passage is, then a call to repentance for all of us, a call to sin no more.

The next set of lectio notes can be found here.

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