Woman Caught in Adultery by John Martin Borg

“…be merciful, the souls of the faithful need your mercy.”  These are the words given by newly elected Pope Francis to a group of confessors at St. Mary Major Basilica in Rome the day after he was elected Bishop of Rome.

These words, I believe, catch the heart of our Lord in today’s gospel passage regarding the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11).  We often refer to this passage as “the woman caught in adultery” but it could just as easily be titled, “woman being played by the powers-that-be”.  The scribes and the Pharisees have no regard for this woman nor are they really concerned about the integrity of the Law at this point.  The scribes and the Pharisees rush to Jesus full of energy and accusation with this woman in tow in order to catch our Lord in a trap.  The woman is powerless and she is being played by the powers-that-be.  This is often the situation of the poor in our world.  The poor know this game well.

So does our Lord.  Our Lord refuses the energy and the accusation of the narrative of the scribes and the Pharisees and he re-directs it in an almost aikido-like fashion.  Our Lord bends down and he writes on the ground with his finger.  He lets the energy and accusation of the mob pass over him.  Once the energy and accusation of the crowd is spent and has no effect, our Lord responds with a new and surprising energy.  It is an energy rooted in God himself.  It is the energy of mercy.

Once again, our Lord is giving us an instruction in mercy.  In last Sunday’s gospel (Lk. 15:1-3,11-32) our Lord answers the accusation of the scribes and Pharisees not by pointing to his own righteousness but by pointing to the mercy of the Father.  This Sunday, our Lord answers the accusation of the powers-that-be by speaking truth and sharing mercy.  Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.  None of us are without sin.  Christ alone is without sin but instead of accusation he offers mercy.

In this Sunday’s first reading (Isaiah 43:16-21) we are told that our Lord opens a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters.  In and through the gospel, Jesus overcomes the strength of accusation and abuse of power that can often inflame and harden the human heart and he opens a new way – the way of mercy and reconciliation!  Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new!  Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?  In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers.  

On Tuesday, newly-elected Pope Francis will be installed as Bishop of Rome and successor to St. Peter.  Much is being made of his humility and simplicity.  Pope Francis knows the lesson of mercy because he is a friend of the poor.  When we become friends with the poor we learn their story and we learn the lessons that only they can teach.  Christ is with the poor in a unique way.  Friendship with the poor is friendship with Christ.  There is no true new evangelization without friendship with the poor.

In a special way this Sunday we pray for newly-elected Pope Francis, may he in his unique role as successor to St. Peter, help all the Church learn the lessons of mercy and walk together in the ever-newness of the Gospel!