The other day, I sternly warned my two year old, Peter, that he must never, ever touch or kick the car door handle. For all he could tell, I was laying out an eternal edict, exalting car door handles above all things, and committing him to the reverence of car door handles till the end of time.
But in fact, I wasn’t. Rather, I was making a provisional arrangement appropriate to his development. It reflected neither the full truth about him nor about cars, but it was good enough to keep him from getting killed until he is mature enough to ride safely on his own and one day even drive the car.
In many cases, the Old Covenant is much the same thing as the Car Door Edict I issued to Peter. It reflects the moral law and is real revelation. But it is also provisional, not final. In some ways, we must, like St. Paul, put it behind us in pursuit of the goal, “the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus” (Php 3:14). Isaiah sees this, when he tells the returning exiles that the restored Israel will be a step forward, not a nostalgic return to the glories of yesteryear. To a people steeped in Tradition, he says something shocking: “Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not. See, I am doing something new!” (Is. 43:18-19). These words, astounding enough to the returning exiles from Babylon, will take on even more shocking force as the Messianic age dawns with Jesus.
Jesus’ encounter with the woman taken in adultery and her accusers is a case in point. Jesus, by the time of this incident, has plenty of enemies who object when he preaches mercy rather than condemnation for sinners. And so, to “catch him in his words” they attempt to place him in a bind. They bring him a woman caught in the very act of adultery and ask whether she should be stoned to death as the Law prescribed or not. If he answers no, he is no prophet since he contradicts Moses. If he answers yes, he is preaching insurrection against Rome, which alone held the right to execute capital crimes in Judea at that time.
Jesus’ answer is a stunning example of how the New Revelation transcends and completes the Old. In the Old Covenant, the Ten Commandments were inscribed on two stone tablets “by God’s own finger” (Ex 31:18). In this story, God again bends down and begins to “write on the ground with his finger.” A new law is about to be promulgated: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Nothing of what is true or good in the Old Covenant is repudiated here. Adultery is not declared okay. Sin is not excused. Moses is not painted as a villain. On the contrary, the sin is fully recognized as sin, destructive not only to society but to the woman herself, who is in the image of God. But, in addition to affirming all that the Old Law affirmed, the New Law completes all that was provisional and incomplete in the Old Covenant. Jesus has come to reveal that the point of all the condemnation in the Old Covenant was to reveal the value and dignity of the human person, not to enforce our lust for blood. He comes to forgive and not condemn.
Further, he comes not merely to forgive, but to exalt. The Second Adam kneels before the one to whom he gives the title “Woman” just as Eve and Mary are called “Woman.” Jesus, in using this title, makes this “common sinner” an image of the whole Church, whom he will present to himself in splendor, “without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish” (Eph 5:27). She is, in this instant, and without violence to the Law, translated from adulteress to the Bride of Christ.
The challenge of this reading for today is abundant. It directly bears on our attitude to the death row inmate, to the pedophile, to That Person whom God (surely!) does not expect us to forgive after what they did. Before each of these, Christ kneels. In each of these, Christ sees his Bride. On behalf of each, God’s finger probes our heart seeking the place in which he may write his New Law: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.”