To read the texts click on the texts: Isa 43:16-21; Phil 3:8-14; Jn 8:1-11
A Jesuit friend of mine, who is now with God, was steeped in Ignatian and Jesuit Spirituality. He said to me one day, when he was 86 years old, “Errol, did you know that God does not forgive.” I was taken aback by his statement and, in my naiveté, began to quote the many texts from both the Old and New Testament that speak of the unconditional mercy and love of God. After I had finished my spiel, he turned to me with a twinkle in his eye and said, with a smile, “God does not forgive, because God does not condemn”. A few months later, we met again, but he had forgotten what he had told me and repeated the statement. This time, I was ready and knew what was coming. However, since I did not want to spoil the great finale for him, I pretended that I was hearing it for the first time and again, began to quote the scripture texts of God’s unconditional mercy, forgiveness, and love. When I had finished, he said, “God does not forgive, because God does not condemn.” After that, every time we met, he would begin his conversation with me by saying, “God does not forgive” and he would end our conversation by saying, “because God does not condemn”. As I reflected on his words, I began to think that if, as he grew older, that is all he remembered, it was surely enough. He needed nothing more.
The Gospel text of today speaks, not of the forgiveness of God but, of non-condemnation. In the Gospel today, Jesus has no need to forgive the woman caught in adultery because he has not condemned her. It is important to note, however, that Jesus also does not condemn the condemners of the woman. He condemns no one. Many fanciful interpretations have been given about Jesus’ action of writing on the ground when he is asked the question. While some think that Jesus was writing the sins of the bystanders, others think that he did not hear the question or, that he was trying to gain time to come up with a good answer. Still others think that Jesus was overcome by shame and embarrassment at the question and so, stooped down so as to hide his face. Nothing in the text allows such interpretations and it may well be that the reason Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground was to distance himself from the situation and refuse to play judge. Be that it may, after Jesus has challenged the accusers of the woman to cast a stone at her if they are sinless, he bends down and writes on the ground once again. It seems plausible to interpret this second action of Jesus as stemming from his desire to condemn and to judge no one. He will not even accuse or judge the very ones who have accused and judged the woman. This is the challenge of unconditional love.
This love was manifested to the people of Israel, as narrated in the first reading of today, when, through the words of Isaiah, the Lord promised the people a “new thing”. This was because the “former things” were not remembered anymore. They were forgotten and erased. The “new thing” which the Lord will do is make a way in the wilderness. He will travel like a shepherd on this way, and will lead his flocks to safety and nourishment.
This is also the “new thing” that Paul is convinced he has received and, because of which, all the old or former things are of no consequence whatsoever. They are to be counted as refuse when compared with the gain of knowing and experiencing the unconditional forgiveness and love of God made manifest in Jesus. This is also made explicit in the words Jesus spoke to the woman caught in adultery. Jesus said, “Do not sin again”. He is not stating what is required for acquittal. He is acquitting freely and without reservation. This unconditional love has to become the starting point for a new life that one is challenged to live.
The readings of today are thus a consolation to everyone, no matter to which category we may belong. If we are like the scribes and Pharisees in the Gospel story of today, quick to condemn others and point fingers at them, the readings are saying to us that God will not condemn us or point a finger at us. We have been forgiven for this sin and forgiven unconditionally. If we identify with the woman in the Gospel story, then to us, too, the message is that our sin has been erased and that we have been forgiven, unconditionally. However, no matter with whom we identify, the next step after having experienced the forgiveness of God in Jesus is, like Paul, to forget what lies in the past and to press on to what lies ahead. And, what lies ahead, is only unconditional forgiveness, mercy, and love. Will we press on?