Adultery in the Heart

Monday in the Fifth Week of Lent: Daniel 13:1-9, 15-17, 19-30, 33-62, John 8:1-11.

Adultery is the theme in today’s readings. As we are presented with stories about this sin, one of the great sins against the Ten Commandments, we learn about a different kind of adultery, which is a betrayal of God in our hearts. We also learn about the fidelity God provides even in the midst of our sin — that His law protects us from sin and also picks us up when we fall.

In the first reading from the Book of Daniel, we read about the “God-fearing woman, Susanna” and the wicked judges who accuse her of adultery with a fictitious young man. It is they who have succumbed to lust for her. The author writes, “They suppressed their consciences; they would not allow their eyes to look to heaven.” I appreciate how this describes the moment of slipping into evil; they act here by suppressing their consciences and keeping their eyes from looking to heaven. The gaze of a person to heaven, yearning for and obeying God, is a great way to envision our relationship with Him. We are always striving to be worthy of Him, of his grace and mercy. By intentionally looking away from heaven, these wicked judges are breaking off their relationship with God.

So, what is this relationship? First of all, it is a relationship that He began — with our initial Creation as His children, and then with the covenants he initiates for us throughout history. This reveals that He loves us and wants us to be close to Him. As we discussed in our reflection, The Purifying Fire We Call God’s Wrath, being close to Him requires some preparation because His purifying essence embraces all that is good but burns all that is evil. With his covenants, He gives us a path to follow in order to not be burned but be embraced. We call this path the Law, but note that it serves the purpose of helping us grow in the Spirit, not that it should simply be followed for the sake of being followed.

Where does adultery come in? Well, marriage is a microcosm of this covenant with God (assuming we’re talking about marriage in the Church, not a civil union). Marriage carries with it a vow, a covenant between the man and woman. There are rules (law) to follow that define that fidelity and that covenant, but holding it together is the love they have and that will grow between them (the spirit). On top of this legalistic view of marriage vows, marriage is a sacrament because God sanctifies the union. The couple vows to be loving and faithful to each other with the help of the Spirit. God, in turn, enters the sacramental marriage and becomes present in their union. Each is Christ for one another.

The Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine of Siena (c.1460), Giovanni di Paolo (Giovanni di Paolo di Grazia) | Wikimedia Commons.

Adultery is a spiritual sin as much as a breaking of the law. That is why James in his letter “Adulterers! Do you not know that friendship with the world is enmity with God? Therefore whoever wishes to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God” (James 4:4). Adultery is here applied to choosing the world over God. Jesus, too, uses the word to refer to a faithless people who have turned spiritually away from God: “An evil and adulterous generation seeks for a sign, but no sign will be given to it except the sign of the prophet Jonah” (Mt 12:39).

Some have written that because adultery is such a serious sin in God’s eyes it is used as a metaphor for spiritual sin in turning away from God. But I think this is backward. Adultery is breaking a personal covenant with one’s beloved, and Jesus teaches that the “greatest commandment” is to love God first, then love our neighbor as we love ourselves. To say that human marriage and adultery is of primary importance and it can then be extended to our relationship with God is backward in priority. Our personal covenant of love with God is the primary relationship that orders our lives and marriage on earth is a beautiful microcosm of that love. After all, God is the source and Christ the example of the type of selfless love we are called to bring to our marriages. Adultery with our spouse on earth is perhaps a more tangible way for us to grasp the great sin that is adultery against God.

Detail from Susanna and the Elders (1653), Jacob Jordaens | Wikimedia Commons. While I think Jodaens is off with his smiling Susanna, as if she’s enjoying the intrusion of these nasty men on her bath, I think he’s spot on with the devilish faces of the judges and their grasping hands. It speaks to their lustful focus on her.

So when the two elder judges in the Book of Daniel “would not allow their eyes to look to heaven,” they are on the path of becoming spiritual adulterers. When they act upon their lustful desires by attempting to rape Susanna and then falsely accuse her of adultery, we are given a juxtaposition of worldly adultery and spiritual adultery. Their false testimony as judges in a court and the ensuing guilty verdict begs the question of why laws can fail to provide justice. Human justice, as we all know, often does fail and miss the mark — it is not divine justice and it is tainted by the sins each of us carries with us.

But Susanna appeals to God for divine justice, not to the court for human justice. And, “The Lord heard her prayer. As she was being led to execution, God stirred up the holy spirit of a young boy named Daniel.” The story reminds us that while God is the source, He works in this world through the Spirit and through other people. Daniel’s youth speaks to the purity and honesty we hope for when we think of justice. And his spirit-given wisdom allows him to trap the wicked judges in their lies. The whole episode validates spiritual fidelity to God as well as marital fidelity to one’s spouse.

Cropped image of The Innocence of Susanna (c.1621), Valentin de Boulogne | Creative Commons, courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Note the emphasis of the children and the child-like honesty of divine justice.

The gospel from St. John presents another look at marital vs. spiritual adultery. In this account, the question of the Law and the Spirit come into even sharper focus. This account has often been presented to us in a very moralistic sense, i.e., don’t judge others and God’s mercy is boundless, even for sinners. But we are very far removed from traditional Jewish ritual practice, and I think we’re both missing the point and mistakenly generalizing a specific act of teaching that Jesus presents.

In fact, all signs point to the fact that this is almost identical in nature to the first reading, where several judges are falsely accusing a woman of adultery in a miscarriage of justice. The key is when Jesus says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” He is not saying that only sinless people can execute justice (no judicial system could exist!). He is referring to the Torah where it is written that if “you make a thorough inquiry, and the charge is proved true,” then not only shall the adulterer/adulteress be stoned, but “The hands of the witnesses shall be the first raised against the person to execute the death penalty” (Deut 17:4, 7). You see, this woman was dragged before Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees although the Torah relates that witnesses must bring her to the temple for justice. If these scribes and Pharisees truly caught her in the act and are witnesses, then they should cast the first stone (a serious act that must be justified otherwise you are murdering, not carrying out justice). Otherwise, they are sinning by lying about witnessing the adultery. So, “let the one among you who is without sin” is the same as saying “whoever witnessed this should be the first to stone her.” Jesus is living the law more fully then these scribes and Pharisees are. Tellingly, no one casts a stone. 

Detail from Jesus and the Sinner Woman (c.1886), Vasily Polenov | Creative Commons, courtesy

The other key that tells us this episode is more about Jesus’s authority as the Word and Law than it is about mercy and forgiveness is his act of writing in the dirt. St. Augustine of Hippo writes an enticing few lines about this act: “You have heard, O Jews, you have heard, O Pharisees, you have heard, O teachers of the law, the guardian of the law, but have not yet understood Him as the Lawgiver. What else does He signify to you when He writes with His finger on the ground? For the law was written with the finger of God; but written on stone because of the hard-hearted. The Lord now wrote on the ground, because He was seeking fruit” (Tractate 33 on the Gospel of John, 5). This interpretive move is a nice way to look at the new reality of God in the flesh, working in humanity in a new way.

But let us also understand this more literally within Jewish ritual law. For accusations of adultery without witnesses (as Jesus knows this is), the Torah describes a water trial (called Sotah) that the woman must undergo. It instructs, “the priest shall take holy water in an earthen vessel, and take some of the dust that is on the floor of the tabernacle and put it into the water. … the priest shall put [the charges and penalties] in writing, and wash them off into the water of bitterness. He shall make the woman drink the water of bitterness that brings the curse” (Numbers 5:17, 23). “Holy water” was written in Hebrew as “living water,” and we can begin to see how Christ, who is living water and our high priest, is enacting the Sotah ritual as prescribed in the Torah. He (the water) writes in the dust the charges and penalties, fulfilling the letter of the Law that He wrote. Let us also keep in the front of our minds that this is the incarnate Word of God. The Word that forms the Torah and its prescriptions around how to carry out justice. As Jesus affirms, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them” (Mt 5:17). 

Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery (c.1600), Pieter Brueghel the Younger | Wikimedia Commons.

So the scribes and Pharisees came to entrap Him and they truly have no clue about Who they are challenging. He is the Word, the fulfillment of the Law — he knows it better than they ever could. He knows that these prescriptions are in place so that there is no miscarriage of justice. He lifts up the law to fulfill the spiritual work it is intended to do: to keep our hearts clean from lies and sin, to keep sinners from perverting the justice God intends in the world.

On what other evidence might we think this episode is not about “forgiveness no matter what”? His parting exchange with the woman bears no resemblance to the other miracles he performs when forgiving sin or healing. He says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” He confirms that He was also not a witness to adultery on her part (which is the point of the encounter with the scribes and Pharisees). Does that mean that she didn’t commit adultery? Not necessarily, but that’s not His mission. Recall that the Samaritan woman at the well was living in adultery and had 5 husbands, yet He shared with her one of His most thorough revelations of divinity. Mary Magdalene was also a prostitute, but she became one of His close disciples. It’s not that adultery against a spouse doesn’t matter — the Word of God clearly says it does. It’s that His mission is about fidelity of Spirit. He preaches primarily on the dangers of adultery in the context of our most fundamental covenant with God.

Nothing about this final exchange is like the other miracles or healings he accomplishes. He does not ask her about her faith or belief. He does not establish the atonement and request for mercy that is the requirement for spiritual healing. We must conclude that this encounter is not about sin being forgiven. So when Jesus says, “Go, and from now on do not sin any more,” I’m sure that He was speaking of spiritual adultery just as much, if not more, than spousal adultery.

 For me, at least, returning to these familiar stories with a new lens and spirit of contemplation has shed light in new ways. I’m sure that none of these reflections are the ultimate exegesis of scripture, but going through the effort has helped me feel much closer to Christ this Lent.


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