Scapegoating Violence

Scripture Reading

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives.
But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area,
and all the people started coming to him,
and he sat down and taught them.
Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman
who had been caught in adultery
and made her stand in the middle.
They said to him,
“Teacher, this woman was caught
in the very act of committing adultery.
Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women.
So what do you say?”
They said this to test him,
so that they could have some charge to bring against him.
Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.
But when they continued asking him,
he straightened up and said to them,
“Let the one among you who is without sin
be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Again he bent down and wrote on the ground.
And in response, they went away one by one,
beginning with the elders.
So he was left alone with the woman before him.
Then Jesus straightened up and said to her,
“Woman, where are they?
Has no one condemned you?”
She replied, “No one, sir.”
Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you.
Go, and from now on do not sin any more.”
(John 8:1-11)

Scripture Study

Some ancient manuscripts of the Fourth Gospel omit this episode entirely. Other manuscripts place it elsewhere in John or even in the Gospel of Luke. According to the Council of Trent in the sixteenth century, the official canon of the Scriptures corresponds to everything included in the Latin Vulgate edition. This translation includes the episode as canonical.

8:6 to test him: The Pharisees are not seeking legal advice from Jesus. Their question in 8:5 is a trap designed to incriminate or discredit him. (1) If Jesus authorizes the stoning, the Pharisees will report him to the Romans for criminal wrongdoing, for the Jews were not permitted to administer capital punishment under Roman rule (18:31). (2) If Jesus forbids the stoning, the Pharisees will discredit him as a false messiah who contradicts Moses, for the Torah classifies adultery as a capital crime (Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22).

8:7 Let him who is without sin: Many popular interpretations of this verse are unworkable because they lead Jesus straight into the trap set by the Pharisees in 8:4–5. (1) Some argue that Jesus is overturning the death penalty for adultery prescribed in the Torah. In fact, Jesus is not addressing the status or legality of the death penalty at all; he is simply dodging the Pharisees’ trap. (2) Others argue that Jesus permits the adulteress to walk free because no witnesses are present to testify against her. This could not have been so, first, because it wrongly implies that Jesus would have been caught off guard if the witnesses who caught the adulteress in the act did come forward and, second, because it wrongly implies that Jesus would then have authorized the stoning. (3) Others argue that Jesus brings the examination to a halt because the woman’s partner is absent and so the process of incrimination cannot proceed. This could not have been so, first, because of a clear precedent in the OT where Susanna is falsely condemned for adultery without first establishing who and where her partner was (Dan 11:34–41) and, second, because it wrongly implies that Jesus would have authorized the stoning if the woman’s partner had eventually been found.

8:8 wrote … on the ground: What Jesus inscribes in the dirt is unknown but probably symbolic. ● The gesture may recall Jer 17:13, a warning that those who forsake the Lord “shall be written in the earth” because they have rejected the “fountain of living water”. ● Morally (St. Bede, Hom. in Evan.): Christ, who twice bends down to write on the ground, teaches us to bend low in humility to examine ourselves both before and after addressing the faults of our neighbor.

8:9 the eldest: i.e., the wisest, who were the first to detect the brilliance of Jesus’ reply (8:7).

8:11 do not sin again: Jesus neither condemns the woman nor condones her sins. He rather forgives her past and challenges her to live a life of purity in the future.

Scripture Reflection

Our Gospel today tells about the woman that scribes and Pharisees caught in adultery. Imagine where they were standing when they caught her in the very act. The voyeurism and perversion of these men! Then they come en masse, in the terrible enthusiasm of a mob, and they present the case to Jesus.

Now what does Jesus do in the face of this violent mob? First, he writes on the ground. The mysterious writing might indicate the listing of the sins of each person in the group. As he said in another Gospel, “Remove the plank in your own eye, and then you can see more clearly the speck in your brother’s eye.”

And then he says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her.” He forces them to turn their accusing glance inward, where it belongs. Instead of projecting their violence outward on a scapegoat, they should honestly name and confront the dysfunction within themselves. This story, like all the stories in the Gospels, is a foreshadowing of the great story toward which we are tending. Jesus will be put to death by a mob bent on scapegoating violence.

– Bishop Robert Barron

May the virtues of faith, hope, and love go with you today – DV.