The Gospel forms a prelude to the imminent passion of Jesus Christ. It is placed here on the fifth Sunday of Lent because it is the first episode of the action being brought against Jesus. The scribes and Pharisees try to verbally condemn and crucify Jesus by setting the kind of legal trap they specialised in. If he forgives the woman he is held in contempt of the Law of Moses, and if he does not forgive, his reputation as a man of healing and forgiveness is gone.
In his wisdom, Jesus at first remains quiet. He allows a period of reflection while he bends down and writes on the sand – twice. This is the only instance given of Jesus writing anything. It is suggested that he wrote our sins on the dust or the sand, sins which would be washed away by the tide of his generous forgiveness.
Jesus then invites his listeners to make an examination of conscience. When they were confronted with their own sinfulness, the stones of condemnation fell from their hands, and they melted away. Significantly, it was the older people present who went away first. Age brings a certain mellowness in judgement and a deeper sense of one’s own weakness. The crowd, which usually has a healthy appetite for condemnation, refuses to condemn when challenged by Jesus.
Jesus then rules out condemnation on his own part and offers forgiveness to the woman. It is not ‘cheap grace’. It is not forgiveness without commitment. ‘Go and sin no more’ is the instruction given. Any sin is a serious matter and forgiveness presupposes humility of heart and the resolve to struggle with human weakness.