5th Sunday Lent John 8:1-8
We’ve been hearing a lot about this year being dedicated to the theme of Mercy. Pope Francis has asked the Church to focus on this particular virtue for many reasons, not the least of which is a perception that we have perhaps over-emphasized right thinking (aka orthodoxy) over a personal relationship with the living God. Francis is correct to point out that one of the key facets of God as revealed by Jesus is mercy. Today’s Gospel is a great example of that revelation.
If you’re into Bible study in any depth, you may notice that this particular passage doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of John’s gospel. As a matter of fact, it is missing from all early Greek manuscripts of John, and only shows up in later Latin texts. Many scripture scholars think it was originally part of Luke’s gospel, since it fits the style and themes of Luke so much better. Somewhere along the way, the passage made its way into John’s gospel, and there it stuck. Worry not, the Church completely accepts this passage as canonical, that is, approved scripture.
Let’s open up this remarkable passage in a bit more detail. The scene is quiet and calm, Jesus in the temple area, teaching the people who have gathered around on their own accord. Then chaos enters. A group of Pharisees and scribes barge in, frog marching a woman into the midst of the group, demanding that Jesus make a ruling on her fate. Note the harshness of the Pharisees. Brought, caught, made to stand. This is the law in all its cold, stark reality. She’s guilty, caught in the act! The law says to stone her, what do you say, Jesus? Are you a good orthodox Jew as you claim to be? Or a charlatan, as we think?
Much has been made of Jesus’ next action. He bends down and writes in the dirt. What does he write? Some say he was writing the sins of the Pharisees. Others that he was just doodling. The commentary I like suggests a link to a passage in Exodus, “When the Lord had finished speaking to Moses on Mount Sinai, he gave him the two stone tablets of the commandments, the stone tablets inscribed by God’s own finger.”(Ex 31:18) Can we assume that Jesus was adding to the commandment, was inscribing a new way to look at the law, a new way of mercy? Whatever he wrote, when he stood up, his simple words must have stunned the crowd. “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Essentially, his words held up a mirror to the scribes and Pharisees. They walk away one by one, in disconnected isolation, unable to see that Jesus offers a new, life-giving paradigm.
Eventually, it is just Jesus and the woman, alone together. St. Augustine calls this exquisite moment, “Mercy meets misery!” You can imagine the woman has her head down, eyes shut, cringing for the impact of the first stone. Jesus brings her back to life, “Woman, where are they?” The term woman is fraught with meaning and nuance: woman, daughter of Eve, life-bringer, potentiality embodied, woman. “Has no one condemned you?” She looks up, perhaps in surprise. “No one, Lord.” Then Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.” Despite the wrongness of her action, Jesus is radically affirming her essential goodness. You may have done evil, but that does not mean that YOU are evil.
Let’s contrast the actions of the Pharisees, who were indeed following the law, and Jesus. Note that the Pharisees, literally and figuratively, are holding the woman in sin. They equate her sin with her individual essence. You are what you do, and more to the point, you always are what you did. If that act is “bad enough”, then just as the action is condemned, so too are you condemned right along with it. Stomp out the sin, stomp out the sinner. There’s no sense of proportion or context.
Mercy is the intersection of compassion, grace, and love. It’s often conflated with forgiveness, but there’s a big difference. Mercy is always undeserved, and must be given from someone who has the power to someone who has no power, who, more importantly, is undeniably guilty. When someone “throws themselves on the mercy of the court” this is exactly what they’re implying. I’m guilty, I deserve punishment, but I’m asking that you don’t punish me. It seems pretty audacious to ask such a favor, doesn’t it? But this is exactly what we hope for on judgement day, right? We’re told that God is merciful, full of compassion, and (gulp) just. How do you mix those up in a way that is right and fair? It’s called restorative justice. Our present justice system is retributive, that is, focused on punishment first and foremost.
Last weekend I spent 4 days in prison, Thursday through Sunday, helping to conduct a Kairos retreat for a small number of inmates. Most of you are aware of our annual cookie drive in October for the Kairos retreat, but we also hold a retreat in March. I don’t ask for cookies in March because I don’t want to take advantage of your generosity more than once a year. But make no mistake, cookies are crucial for getting the men into the retreat. Once we’ve got them in the net, we have a chance to work ‘em over with the Holy Spirit. Very few can resist the simple treatment we summarize as “listen, listen, love, love”. Oh yeah, Jesus shows up every time.
There are four main yards in the prison, A through D. This past weekend, for the first time ever in California, for the first time ever in the United States, we conducted Kairos retreats in three separate yards simultaneously. I was in Yard A, a general population yard with a reputation for interracial violence. So at each of the three tables, we deliberately assigned 2 blacks, 2 whites, and 2 Hispanic inmates. I and two other outside guys sat at the table as well, for a total of 9 guys per table. Let me tell you about one of the inmates, a guy named Kenny. Kenny has an IQ of about 75. He was institutionalized at the age of 7 by his parents, who didn’t know how to handle this wild unruly, difficult child. He remained at the institution until he was 18, when he was released as an adult. Angry at the world, shunned by his family, he hooked up with drug dealers to make some easy money, and they took full advantage of his gullibility and naiveté. He predictably got into trouble, and is now serving year 25 of a 30 year sentence. When Kenny heard that people on the outside were responsible for the homemade cookies, which he ate by the handful, he took me aside and asked how he could thank them. Kenny likes to draw, so I suggested he draw you a picture, so he did. Spelling is not his strong suit.
When we wrap things up on Sunday, the inmates are invited to share their impressions of the weekend. Most of them express gratitude at finally finding a family within the walls they can share their pain with. One guy, Zack, told us in chilling detail how he had his funeral completely planned out, the music, the flowers, the words to be shared. All that was left to do was to provide the corpse. He had this planned as well, right down to the date and time…until this weekend. The Lord spoke to him during the weekend. Go, Jesus said, forgiveness means a future, a way forward. That’s always God’s invitation. Don’t sit there stuck in sin, move forward! Zack has decided to move forward.
Another inmate told us that he thought he knew what love was. But he realized after this weekend that his idea of love was all about taking, taking, taking. He didn’t know that love is about giving, until he got the gift. Here he is, a 45 year old hardened criminal, crying his eyes out, marveling that anyone would say to him, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.” Move forward.
This is the gift of forgiveness. Stop wallowing in your self-pity. Stop digging up the past. Guilt is a paralyzing emotion. God can’t work with people who are frozen in their depression. So he for – gives and sends us forth – do better the next time. Help, don’t hurt. Give, don’t take. Work with me, and I will make you a fisher of men, a fisher of women, a fisher of the broken. And together, we can change things. Will you join the Lord? Or will you throw stones?
© Deacon Peter Hodsdon St. James Parish, Solana Beach