(Fifth Sunday of Lent (C): This homily was given on April 1, 2001 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I. by Fr. Raymond Suriani. Read John 8: 1-11.)

"The woman caught in adultery: convicted but not condemned."

To convict.

To condemn.

The distinction between those two verbs is very real, but not very well understood! Which accounts, at least in part, for the common misinterpretation of the Gospel story we just heard (the story of the woman who was caught in the act of committing adultery). It’s the misinterpretation which leads some to believe that Jesus condoned this woman’s sin. And this is not a new error. According to Monsignor James Turro, a New Testament professor from Philadelphia, this misinterpretation was around in the earliest days of Christianity. Monsignor Turro recently wrote the following: "Fear that [this] account of the woman taken in adultery might seem to encourage a laissez-faire attitude [toward sin], or, worse yet, might seem to approve of adultery, prompted some early copyists of the Bible to expunge the narrative from the text. They simply refused to copy it."

Apparently some monks were so concerned that people would misinterpret what Jesus said and did here, that they decided to skip over the story completely when they were copying the Gospel of John. That’s why the narrative is missing from some early manuscripts of the 4th Gospel.

This misinterpretation stems from fact that Jesus refuses to condemn the woman.

After the scribes and Pharisees drift away (probably because Jesus wrote their sins in the sand!), our Lord stands up and he says to her, "Has no one condemned you?" She replies, "No one, sir." To which Jesus responds, "Neither do I condemn you."


But he still does convict her!—and that’s the essential point which is so often overlooked! He convicts her of her sin by what he says in the very next line of the text. And she doesn’t argue the point! Immediately after our Lord says to her, "Neither do I condemn you,’ he adds the instruction, ‘Go, and from now on do not sin anymore."

He calls her action a "sin"—not a mistake, or a foible, or a weakness. He labels the deed a sin, and commands her not to do it again.

This leads to the obvious question: What exactly is the difference between "convicting" and "condemning"?

Simply put, to convict is to identify or expose a particular sin; to condemn is to say or imply that someone is damned. During his earthly life, Jesus very often did the first, but he never, ever did the second—as we see evidenced in this Gospel. But Jesus is God—which means that on the Day of Judgment he will do the second. Or, to be a little more accurate, he will ratify the fact that certain people have condemned themselves.

Now—in case you haven’t figured it out yet—you are not God! And neither am I! (I’ll bet you’re all very happy about that!)

Consequently, because we are imperfect, fallible human beings, we never have the right to condemn! Only God is qualified to do that, because only God knows the heart; only God knows how culpable a person is for his or her sins. We do not—even if we think we do. A woman with this mindset once came to Fr. John Vianney for confession, and she said, "My husband has not been to Mass or received the sacraments for years. He has been unfaithful, wicked and unjust. He has just fallen from a bridge and was drowned—a double death of body and soul!" Fr. Vianney answered by saying, "Madam, there is a very short distance between the bridge and the water—but it’s that distance which forbids you to judge."

Biblically speaking, "to judge" means "to condemn." We Christians need to be clear about that. It has nothing to do with calling sin "sin"! That’s another common misunderstanding! Many Christians today are deathly afraid of pointing out sin, because they don’t want to be accused of "judging." Remember what happened during the Lewinsky scandal a couple of years ago? Christians said, "The president broke the 6th commandment," and his defenders immediately retorted, "Who are you to judge? Remember, Jesus said, ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged’!"

But that’s not "judging"! It’s merely pointing out a fact: He broke the 6th commandment! How culpable he was in God’s eyes for that sin is something which no one knows except God himself. He might have been fully culpable; he might not have been. But that does not change the fact that his action was objectively sinful, and should be designated as such!

Remember that the very same Jesus who said, "Judge not," also said, "If your brother should commit some wrong against you, go and point out his fault." Similarly, in Galatians 6, St. Paul says, "If someone is detected in sin, you who live by the spirit should gently set him right." Then, in Colossians 3, he says, "Admonish one another."

Thus, according to Jesus and St. Paul, the experience of being convicted of sin is not a bad thing! And they indicate that it can happen through human beings! God can work through us to convict someone else, and he can use someone else to convict us of sin (a far less pleasant experience, to be sure!).

And this is something we should expect to happen whenever God’s Word is preached with power, clarity and conviction! We should expect to be challenged and convicted—at least from time to time.

One Good Friday afternoon, after Bishop Sheen had preached on the Seven Last Words of Christ at St. Patrick’s Cathedral, a woman came into the sacristy and began to curse him violently! He finally said to her, "Why did you come to this cathedral today?" She replied, "To steal purses." The bishop said, "Did you get any?" The woman replied, "No. That second word of yours got me—the word of Christ to the good thief!"

She had been convicted by God through the preaching of Bishop Sheen—and that moment of conviction (as unpleasant as it was for her) proved to be the first step in her eventual conversion to the faith.

No one of us enjoys being convicted. Our initial tendency is to get angry like that woman did!

But think about it: getting convicted now is much better than being condemned on the Day of Judgment! Condemnation is final, because it always sends a person to hell. But every conviction can be easily overturned by an attitude of repentance and a good confession. This means that the experience of being convicted can actually lead us to heaven, if we convert our hearts after being convicted of the sin.

So (as crazy as it may sound) we should all pray to be convicted!

In fact, let our prayer at this Mass be, "Dear Lord, convict me—and convert me—that I might never be condemned."