The Right Little Thing

"The Right Little Thing"
Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C
[Is 43:16-21. Ps 126: 1-2, 2-3, 4-5, 6. Phil 3:8-14. Jn 8:1-11.]

There was an English professor at Glassboro State College, now Rowan University, who was a real stickler for clear thinking and clear speech.
His name was Richard Mitchell, and he was one of the most incredible minds of his time.  For many years he put out a publication titled The Underground Grammarian.
He skewered his fellow professors and others for their awful linguistic gaffes – mistakes that betrayed them as people who really don’t think too clearly!

Many feared him; but near the end, he was so admired and respected even by those he took to task – that many of his colleagues took offense if he neglected to chastise them for lapses in writing and speech!

Well, to many of us, Richard Mitchell was a hero! We, who aspired to be teachers – probably most of us without having read the Letter of James chapter 3 – tried to learn from this genius.

For Richard Mitchell, today’s Gospel was a beautiful lesson in education.

We have the Scribes and Pharisees bringing a woman before Jesus who was caught in adultery. It is important that we see what is going on here.
They bring the woman before Jesus, and they tell him what Moses has prescribed in the law – death by stoning for this act!

Well, these Scribes and Pharisees are right – in a way; and they are wrong in a way!
They don’t seem to care about that, though. We hear this in the gospel: “They said this to test him – to tempt him.”

And Jesus knew, it!
Jesus knows the Law – after all, from our standpoint, we know that he is indeed God!
But the Scribes and Pharisees don’t know this.

Let’s look at what the law says about this, and the Law is actually elegant!
It says that when adultery is committed, both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death.
And the stoning?
Well, that is only in the case of a betrothed maiden, not one who is fully married (Dt. 22:24).
There is another problem:
The guilt of a party is to be established on the testimony of at least two witnesses, and we have this directly from the Law:
“At the execution, the witnesses are to be the first to raise their hands against him; afterward all the people are to join in.” (Dt. 17:7).

So who here in this Gospel are the actual witnesses? No one specifically is named.

And Jesus, who has bent down to write in the dirt straightens up and gives a beautiful and elegant little sentence of direction – so unique, so evident of the law.
Here it is in all its simplicity:

“Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Jesus bends down again to write in the sand.

What he wrote is really unimportant. We are never told by the Gospel writer what this may have been.
But what is truly important is that Jesus bends down. He turns away from them.
He doesn’t gaze upon them.

Jesus bends down to give the accurers time to think about his elegant little sentence:

“Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Now, do the accusers really want to take up that challenge? Do the sinful accusers really want to show that they are hypocrites and worse by taking up the first stones?

Did Jesus change the law? No. He upheld the law.

But Jesus did something so very elegant that it might pass us by here.

It didn’t pass by the attention of Richard Mitchell, the Underground Grammarian. Mitchell uses this elegant phrase of Jesus as a prime example of how a master teacher can say what Mitchell calls
“The right little thing.”

"The right little thing" – nothing changed in the law – there is no new spin on Torah here. If you want, you can check in out in the books of Deuteronomy and Leviticus.

But the “right little thing” has penetrated bone and marrow and sinew and gone both to the mind and the heart of the matter.
Jesus is teaching them to think!

And yet, we can see that the “they,” the group – doesn’t really think – there is no “groupthink” here. Individual persons think.
Each one hears the “right little thing.”
Each one begins to mind his own business.
Mitchell would tell us that each one begins to seek his own betterment.
And each one finds it.

Mother Angelica of EWTN fame has another take on this, and not with specific reference to this gospel. She has said: “Mind your own business. If you really minded your own business, you’d be surprised at how little business you really have.”

Now back to the gospel: One by one – the oldest first, the gospel tells us – each went away.
One by one, each one becomes better because of the “right little thing” said by Jesus.

Here is kind of a legalistic interpretation of what Jesus told them: If you do not have equal guilt in this case, you can begin the execution. That’s the law!

Yes, there was a conspiracy here – they were doing this to “test him.”
So there was a bit of complicity in all of them. All were guilty in this particular case in one way or another, because they don’t really have a case about adultery here without bringing both the man and the woman before Jesus.

And the one who could truly be said to be without sin – Jesus Himself – even he couldn’t participate. According to the Law, he was not an accuser, not an eyewitness, and under the law, he is simply unable to prosecute her, so to speak.

And yet there is something more here: Jesus doesn’t accept any apology from the woman – she doesn’t offer one!
He doesn’t tell her she isn’t responsible – he tells her to sin no more from now on.

He does say “Neither do I condemn you.”
And what does that mean? It means that Jesus issues divine forgiveness.

How can he do this? Does this fly in the face of all of the law we’ve just heard about?

In a way, we are all like the woman in today’s gospel – caught up in our own sinfulness. And we are all hoping for forgiveness.

As our Lenten journey continues, we will come to hear that Jesus pays the penalty for her sins – and for ours. We will hear about this on Palm Sunday and on Good Friday.
Look at the tree of life: Jesus Himself becomes a curse for us!

And for us – we need to hear the “right little thing” that Jesus says to the accusers.
We need to hear the “right little thing” that Jesus says as he hangs between life and death on the cross. On Good Friday, that “right little thing” is Jesus’’ last sentence: “It is finished.”

The price is paid.

My friends, he calls all of us to respond in the right little way. Accept His invitation.