Guilt is one of the most common of all human experiences, and often the heaviest burden to carry. Some will use it to come to terms with their life choices and bring about renewal and change. Others will deny its reality even though it may burn like a fire within them or they may project it onto others, avoiding responsibility and the need for change. Some will even use it to punish themselves and so add to their pain.
The biblical perspective on guilt is evident in today’s Gospel. Dragged before Jesus by the Pharisees and scribes, the woman is, by all appearances, guilty, and deserving of the punishment laid down by Moses that she be stoned. Other than the sin of which she is accused, we know nothing about her or her life’s circumstances. We do not know her name, her family or the identity of her partner in the act. Alone, humiliated and at risk, she stands before Jesus awaiting her fate. Yet we know that she is a sinner not just because of the adultery, but because like all humanity, she has fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23).
When understood in strict legalistic terms, sin is usually seen as the breaking of rules and regulations – she was a sinner because she committed adultery. But for Jesus, sin is a bigger concept when understood in spiritual and relational terms – it is our alienation from God, from others and from ourselves. Its origins lie in our prideful and rebellious hearts, and so all humanity is sinful and in need of God’s forgiveness and healing.
What makes the passage even more provocative is that the scribes come to Jesus not out of concern for the law, but in the hope that they might put him to the test. Would he uphold the law or demonstrate compassion? Either way he would alienate someone.
To this day, we will never know what Jesus wrote in the dirt – was he laying for time or giving the scribes time to think again before he turned the tables on them? But his response to their demands has echoed through the centuries: let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. Outflanked and silenced, they are without words and slowly – one by one – they slip away.
For most folks the story could have ended there, but Jesus goes one step further by offering her not just forgiveness but a new beginning. Instead of condemnation, he challenges her to turn her life around and sin no more.
What happened ultimately to this woman we will never know, and perhaps it’s just as well for the real focus here is on God’s mercy and forgiveness. In this encounter, Jesus opened the door for her to a new way of life, but the decision to walk through was hers alone. We see it over and over again – Jesus invites but does not coerce, he challenges but never infringes on our freedom. For love that is not freely given is not true love, and it is true perfect love that God wants us to experience and share.