Our first scripture from this morning is one of the scriptures traditionally read on Ash Wednesday. It calls us to “repent sincerely and return to [the Lord]” and assures us that if we do, God is “always ready to forgive and not punish.”
1 John 1:5-10
Our second scripture is taken from the first letter of John. Like the passage from Joel it reminds us that “if we confess our sins to God … he will forgive us our sins and purify us from all our wrongdoing.”
Our gospel reading is the story of a woman who needed God’s forgiveness and purification. She is known to us only as the woman caught in adultery.
I knew it was wrong even in the beginning, and I’m not trying to make excuses for myself, I knew better, but sometimes things aren’t as simple as right and wrong.
Like most women in my village, I was betrothed and married at a very young age. The arrangement was made while I was still a child, barely 8 years old. My father was well respected in our community even though we were not wealthy. So when an offer came from a wealthy family that I should marry their son Levi, my father was thrilled. It seemed like a wonderful match.
Levi was already a grown man when the arrangement was made. Because I was so young the engagement could not become official until I reach the age of 13 and then we were married a year later. I don’t know if Levi resented having to wait for me or if he had wanted to marry another and had been forced by his family to accept me. Perhaps it was just his nature, but from the very beginning, Levi was cold and distant and often downright cruel. I did my duty as a wife, but when I failed to immediately produce an heir, Levi took it as a personal affront and began to find his pleasure elsewhere.
As time went on he came to my bed-chamber less and less often, which was actually a great relief. But without children my life was lonely and empty. Levi refused to allow me out of the house unless it was absolutely necessary and my loneliness and isolation grew. If I could have, I would have left him but a woman cannot divorce a man, and I would have had nowhere to go even if I could.
That’s when I met Benjamin. Benjamin was my age and he was kind and gentle whenever he spoke to me. The first time Benjamin held me in his arms, I felt my heart sore. I knew it was wrong but I had been so empty and lonely for so long and he filled that emptiness, at least I thought he did. It wasn’t long before I was madly in love with him. I ached for those days when I could see him.
I thought we were being careful, but I now realize that Levi must have suspected for some time. One day when I knew Levi would be gone, Benjamin and I took the opportunity to be together. But suddenly my bed-chamber door was flung open and there stood Levi, and with him were two Pharisees.
Levi picked up my robe and threw it at me. “Get dressed” he sneered. “Before these witnesses, I charge you with adultery!” My knees buckled beneath me. The punishment for adultery was death. I thought Benjamin would say something, try to defend me. He just looked down at the floor, got dressed and left without even once looking up to meet my gaze. He would pay no price for his part in this. He wouldn’t even be named. The witnesses would speak only against me.
The men grabbed me roughly by the arms and pushed me out the door. I was forced to march to through the streets with one of them in front of me and one behind. Levi, meanwhile, led the procession shouting to everyone, “adulteress!” Everyone knew what that meant. There was going to be a stoning! It was a forgone conclusion that I was guilty even before I had been tried. People began to follow us, picking up stones on the way. They didn’t want to miss out!
As we entered the temple courtyard, however, we stopped. I was surprised. Normally an adulteress would be taken directly to the council chambers where judgment would be officially passed. Then she would immediately be taken out and stoned. I knew that was the fate that awaited me but I was beyond caring.
Instead of taking me directly into the chambers however, they pushed me towards a corner of the courtyard where a man sat surrounded by people who were obviously listening to him speak. One of the Pharisees yelled out to him, “Rabbi, this woman was caught in the very act of adultery. The Law of Moses clearly states that she must be stoned to death. So, what do you say?”
As I looked up, I recognized the man they were talking to. This was Jesus, the rabbi who had been traveling throughout the area preaching love and forgiveness. Why would they bring me here? Then it dawned on me. They were using me to try to trap him! If he said I should be stoned they would accuse him of being a hypocrite, preaching forgiveness but then calling for my death. But if he said I should be forgiven they would accuse him of telling people they should disobey the laws of Moses and they would charge him with blasphemy. No matter what he said they would discredit him.
Jesus never even looked up. He seemed to be concentration very hard on the dirt at his feet, drawing something in it with his finger. I thought at first he was just going to ignore them. But they wouldn’t let him. They kept at him. “Rabbi, tell us what you think!”
I knew that in the end, he would have to condemn me. He had no choice. I was guilty and he knew it. When he finally did speak, he still didn’t looking up. Quietly but firmly he said, “Whichever one of you has never committed a sin must throw the first stone.”
There was absolute silence. No one said anything. As for me, I couldn’t take my eyes off him. Even when I heard the people around me beginning to drop their stones and walk away, I just stared at him as he sat there scratching in the dirt. Before I even realized what was happening, I found myself standing alone before Jesus. I was trembling. I had no idea what to expect. There was no way that he could forgive me, yet he had sent away all those who had brought me there. And still he just sat there looking down and drawing in the dirt.
When he finally did look up his eyes were kind, but his mouth was firmly set. Even if he did have pity for me, he could not dismiss what I had done. I took a deep breath and prepared for his words of condemnation. “Woman” he said in a tone that revealed nothing, “everybody seems to have left. Is there on one here to condemn you?”
“No sir” I replied. “They’re all gone.”
There was a long pause as he sat there looking at me. This time when he spoke, his voice was much gentler. “Then I won’t condemn you either,” he said. But it is what he said next that changed my life. “Go then, but don’t sin anymore.”
His words hit me harder than anything else that had happened that entire day. You see I had been thinking about my adultery as a crime, something that I knew was illegal. Something that I deserved to be punished for. I had not thought of it as being a sin against God. I had broken the law, yes, but what was even more important is that I had broken my relationship with God.
And I had not broken that relationship simply because of my adultery with Benjamin. I had broken the relationship when I got angry and blamed God for my unhappy marriage. I had broken the relationship when I allowed bitterness and disappointment to take over my life and push out all warmth or caring.
But how could I possibly mend that relationship. I had done so many hateful and destructive things even before my adultery. Jesus had not condemned me and he had not allowed anyone else to do so. But that was very different from being forgiven. How could God ever forgive me when I could not forgive myself?
It has taken me a very long time to get to the point where I am today, but today I no longer feel the weight of my past controlling me. Levi still refuses to divorce me and my life is still hard, but I have found ways to make it bearable. I spend a great deal of time at the temple these days praying and asking for God’s help and guidance. I try to do my duty as a wife no matter how difficult it may be. I know I will never be able to love Levi but I have come to a point where I actually feel sorry for him. He is such a bitter and unhappy man. I wish I could explain to him what I’ve learned and how it has changed my life. But he simply refuses to listen. Who knows, maybe someday …
So what is it that I have learned that made such a difference for me? Well, after I met Jesus that first time had to know more. I kept going back whenever I could, to hear him speak. When I couldn’t I listened for any new about him. That’s how I found out he had been arrested and that they were going to crucify him.
I couldn’t believe it. I had to see for myself. I just wanted to be near him, to hear him speak one more time. But it was too late. By the time I got there he was already hanging on a cross. It was horrible, and yet I couldn’t look away. I just stood there with tears running down my face, staring up at him.
That’s when I heard him speak for the last time. “Father, forgive them. They don’t understand what they’re doing.”
That’s when I suddenly understood. That’s when I knew in the very depth of my soul that the sins of my past were gone. They were forgiven. He had not told me back then that my sins were forgiven because I had to discover it for myself. If he had told me, I would not have been able to accept it. But now I understand. Now I can accept that I am forgiven.
I now understand that it is not the mistakes of the past that matter. If I am willing to let them go, they’re gone. God has already forgiven them. I don’t have to carry them around with me anymore. But what does matter, what is really important is not the past, but where I go from here.