Mercy and compassion above all

If you were asked to name ten famous figures in the Bible, you would probably list a series of well-known male identities, for example, Abraham, Moses, Job, Jesus, Peter, or Paul. Of the 1426 names mentioned in the Bible, 1315 are male. Only 111 women’s names appear in the Sacred Scriptures.

Given these statistics, one might rightly assume that both women and the issues specific to women were largely ignored by the Biblical writers.

Today’s Gospel, however, presents us with an anomaly — a nameless, adulterous woman whose story proved so powerful that it survived three centuries to be later included in the Fourth Gospel. What is even more remarkable is that it involved a woman who was far from exemplary in her behaviour.

Women play an important role in the Fourth Gospel. Jesus’ mother is offered as an example of the perfect disciple (Jn 2:3-4); the woman at the well in Samaria (Jn 4) is presented as a prototype of the Christian missionary (Jn 4:4-42); and, the first witness of the resurrection is Mary Magdelene (Jn 20:11-18), a detail that grants apostolic status to a woman.

The story of the woman condemned by a mob for her extramarital affairs is very different. On the one hand, it appears to be a stray tradition about Jesus that was added to the Gospel in the third century. On the other, the subject of the story is not held up as an example of anything other than as a recipient of Jesus’ mercy and compassion.

Some early manuscripts have this story in Luke’s Gospel; and, it is a worthy sequel to last week’s story of the Prodigal Son (Lk 15:11-32). Just as the Lukan Jesus told that story of the shameless father who sought to reconcile his two sons, so too here this tale serves to highlight that the call to be a Christian is a call to be different, even shameful in the eyes of wider society.

Jesus was not one to conform to the mob mentality. He saw through the hypocrisy of the crowd demanding the woman’s death. He knew that their appeal to the authorities, both religious and civil, was but an attempt to hide from the real demands of God’s covenantal love.

In a society that saw women as property, Jesus held to a broader, more equalitarian perspective, despite the risk of being seen as different and dangerous. For Jesus, mercy and compassion trump all other demands, even the legal customs of society. He chose to identify with someone shamed by wider society and condemned by the mob.

Like the dysfunctional family of last week’s Gospel, the story of the adulterous woman suggests that Christians too must be shameless in their compassion for the poor and lowly, especially those whose behaviours are deemed shameful. To publicly declare one’s allegiance to the crucified Christ is to identify oneself with all those marginalised by the cultural expectations of society — be they refugees, drug addicts, prostitutes, adulterers, or criminals.

Ian J Elmer
© Majellan Media 2022

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