Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Woman Caught in Adultery: A Destiny Restored

By all fair accounting, the woman in today's gospel was having a bad day.  Not only did she commit adultery, but she was also caught and had now become a public spectacle.  If anything qualifies as a bad day, this would seem to be it.

Whenever I read this gospel, I am struck by how she is treated as a result of her sin.  She becomes a case study.  The crowd doesn't speak to her, but rather about her.  It is as though she did not exist as her accusers speak to Jesus about her.  She becomes entirely identified with her past and her future is about to be eliminated by execution. 

But, the very cause of her downfall becomes the meeting point with her redemption.  Sin separates us from God, but God in his infinite love, takes the "stuff" of sin and uses it to bring us closer to him.  He does not allow sin to be the last word on our existence.  For the Pharisees in today's Gospel, sin pretty much ended the story on that woman's life.  Even though she was still alive, the very fact that she was now treated as an object of discussion rather than a person to be addressed gives this sense that the last page on her life was already written and she may well already be dead.

We too can act this way at times.  Whether it be about our own sins or the sins of others, we can allow past sins to be the final word on our existence.  So often, people carry within themselves the memory of some past sin which they are unable or unwilling to bring to Jesus.  Perhaps, they do not think of this sin often or maybe they think of it daily.  But, whenever it comes to mind, it deprives them of their future.  It returns them to that moment when they became separated from God.  No matter whether they have moved on in life to do great things, they are still haunted by this unresolved sin in their life.  As such, the sin exercises an enormous power over them.  It deprives them of their future.

In today's Gospel, Jesus saved that woman's future.  Not simply in saving her from being stoned, but in addressing her.  He was the only one in the Gospel who spoke to her and not just about her.  She encountered the mercy of God in the person of Jesus Christ.  In an amazing turn of events, because she was a sinner in need of mercy, she encountered Jesus.  Her sin became the place of an encounter with Christ.  No, her sin is not what God wanted for her.  But, God did not deprive her of a future because of her sin.  Instead, in God's beautiful mercy, he took what should have been the end of her story and transformed it into the great new beginning.

Sometimes, people wonder what the priest thinks when people come to confession.  Let me tell you that there is nothing better than to witness (and be an instrument of) somebody being set free from the tyranny of some past sin.  In the matter of seconds, the ridiculous power that this sin has exercised over this person, for who knows how long, is broken.  Perhaps for years, there was a persistent whisper in this person's life, "You have no future.  You can go through the motions of trying to live a good life, but your life ended on the day you committed that sin."  But, in a moment of pure awesomeness, that person meets Jesus in the Sacrament of Penance and is set free.  What does the priest think?  Does he sit in judgment of the person who has sinned?  Let me put it this way: On Easter Sunday, when the apostles saw Christ, do you think that they were more amazed that he suffered and died or that he had risen from the dead?  They would see his death only in terms of the resurrection.  Similarly, in a confessional, the priest (and hopefully the penitent!) can only rejoice that this person's future has now been restored.  They were dead, but are now alive.

To encounter Christ is everything.  Without him, we are doomed by our past.  But, in his presence, we are restored to our future destiny.  There is a corollary to all of this.  Many who experience the great mercy of God and who have their personhood and their future restored by him, may find themselves occasionally subjected to the manipulations of the Devil.  Even though he lost the battle to keep the sinner imprisoned in the past, he desperately attempts to restore the prisoner to his or her cell.  How does he do that?  Oh, perhaps it comes in the middle of the night.  The doubts about God's mercy return.  The memory of the sin can attempt to drag us back to the place where our humanity and our future was lost.  But, we should not fear.  In those moments, all one needs to do is to live the encounter with Christ.  Christ addresses us in the present.  The Devil addresses us, so it seems, always in the past or in casting doubt upon the future.  Jesus meets us here and now.

Today, and in the remaining weeks of Lent, our churches will be filled with persons who are haunted by some thing of the past.  Maybe like the woman in today's Gospel, their sins are publicly known and their accusers are around them.  For others, their sin is carried unknown to the world and it is only their own conscience and the Devil who accuse them.  To them all, I would say that Jesus can set you free.  He will restore your personhood and your future.  He will address you and no longer make you feel like your life is summed up in one long ago fact.  He wants your life to be defined not by your failures but by his friendship. 

What Jesus did for the woman caught in adultery, he wants to do for all of us.  Our past sins need not steal our futures from us.  In the encounter with Christ, all things are restored and made new.  In the encounter with Christ, we discover true freedom and are made able to walk with joy toward our destiny.


  1. I can't believe no one commented on this blog. This is one of your most beautiful and poignant pieces ever. It reduced me to tears. I once lived a life very apart from God and was nasty and immoral. I viewed myself as a victim in life yet in many ways became a perpetrator not caring who I hurt. I have been renewed and recreated in Christ. I have to be very careful not to reflect too much on the past, though. Beautiful writing, Father Barnes.

    1. The sermon was just as beautiful and poignant.


  2. I can believe no one commented only because its a touchy subject. But I will comment.

    I am a Protestant minister who found herself in a troubled marriage due to lack of communication. Trying to find ways to communicate with my husband of 22 years, was weighing heavily on my heart and mind. Prayer, fasting, talking, begging, nothing was working.

    In a moment of weakness, I gave up (first mistake) and then I gave in. I had an affair with a man 20+ years my senior and it lasted for 5 years, all the while preaching and teaching and advocating for a holiness lifestyle. A young pastor found me out and called me on the carpet. He told others, but the ones he told refused to believe him on the basis that he had been my associate and I had had to discipline him. They assumed he was lying.

    But it scared me into submission. I tried more to reach out to my husband. He knew. He forgave me. But he also said he should never have gotten married because he could not communicate well to anyone, let alone a wife. He said he hadn't felt committed for a long time. It didn't make my sin any easier for me to bear. I tried, God knows how hard I tried, but the marriage ended in divorce. We remain dear friends and he trusts me with everything.

    I did leave ministry on my own and now am trying to come back, but its going to be a bit of a long road before I TRUST MYSELF again.

    I did remarry. My husband supports my desire to minister and stands beside me.

    After almost 8 years of being away, I finally found hope. I have finally truly repented, brought it to Jesus, prayed, contacted the old flame and explained where we went wrong and why. I have told him about how his past relates to that sin, and encouraged him to live a holy life and to shun the works of the devil, to live under the control of the Spirit. I have apologized to those I hurt or embarrassed or disillusioned. I have found in Jesus alone, strength for the journey and in Jesus alone, my home.

    Some don't want to accept me because I'm divorced and remarried. Others see no issue.

    I currently am independant, without an assignment and trying to write a study for other ministers in this situation, as well as a study for those who need counsel for other hurts in their lives.

    I loathe the sin that drove me to this point, but because it happened, I want to use what God taught me in this to help others become free of the constant torment of failure, the pain of the fall, the judgement of others, the fear that they cannot be restored.

    Thank YOU Father, for writing this. It has been a blessing to read and to reflect upon and it has touched my soul.