Readings: Isaiah 43:16-21; Psalm 125; Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11
From the very beginning, the Church, the community of believers in Jesus, was unsettled by this story. We have evidence for this in the earliest manuscripts of the gospels. This story wandered around the New Testament before finally settling at the beginning of John 8. The most ancient authorities actually omit it, others add it here, or after John 7:36, or after John 21:25, or even in St Luke's gospel, after Luke 21:38. Not only does it wander from place to place in an unusal way, there are also differences, as we would expect, in the text.
What does it mean? It seems to mean that the first Christians were pretty much like us, unsure how to show forth mercy without it seeming to be indulgent, unsure how to illustrate justice without it seeming cruel and lacking in compassion. We can note in passing that the word of Jesus from the Cross, 'Father forgive them for they know not what they do', suffered similar treatment before it finally settled as part of Luke's passion narrative: the believers were unsure about it. Might Jesus seem too soft, tolerant of evil?
We need to be grateful, therefore, to the Holy Spirit who found a way to fasten this story into the Gospel of St John in spite of the perplexity of believers. It has come down to us in spite of the doubts of believers and thank God that it has.
The treatment of the woman caught in adultery reminds us of something seriously wrong in human beings. We have an interest in thinking about other people's sins and, even more, we do not hesitate to use other people's sins to serve our own purposes and agendas. The people who bring her before Jesus have no real interest in the woman, they are using her to trap him. But they are no match for the combination of intelligence and love that we see in Jesus, they melt away miserably before the combination of justice and mercy we see in him. One of the Fathers of the Church wrote of it, 'quam dulcis est Dominus per mansuetudinem et rectus per veritatem', 'how sweet the Lord is in kindness and how right in truth'.
One of the places where this story ended up in the early manuscripts was after John 21:25, after the Resurrection. And there is lots here about newness and about the re-creation that forgiveness is, reconciliation, the new creature made right before God through the love and obedience of the Son. The other readings at Mass support this view of it: 'I am doing a new deed' (Isaiah), 'I forget the past and strain ahead for what is still to come' (Philippians). The opening of the story draws us towards the cosmology of the resurrection: 'it was early in the morning', the encounter is at the dawn of a new day. The finger of God writes something in dust as the hand of God brought the first human being out of the dust.
The iron trap set by his enemies and by the woman's tormentors seems to leave no way out, no resolution. But the intelligence, love, justice, and kindess of God transforms the situation. It can be a model for us as we think about approaching Christ in the sacrament of reconciliation this Easter time. No matter what 'iron traps' bind our hearts or paralyse our lives, God is in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, through the grace of the sacrament spring forth freedom and new life.