“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” “No one, sir,” she replied. “Neither do I condemn you,” said Jesus, “go away, and don’t sin any more.” John 8, 1-11
Scripture scholars have pointed out that the story of the woman caught in adultery is not included in the earliest manuscripts of John’s Gospel. In fact, it was added in the early part of the Third Century, when Christians were involved in heated argument as to whether there could be forgiveness of sin after baptism. While Tertullian, the early Christian scholar and writer from Carthage in Tunisia, was adamant that there was no forgiveness of sin after baptism, other scholars began to ask the question: “What would Jesus do?” That’s a question that has persisted through the centuries, and is often heard nowadays from people struggling with modern moral dilemmas. In the Third Century that question was answered by including in John’s Gospel the story about Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, which had been part of oral tradition from the time of the Apostles. The debate was a clear illustration that even the earliest Christians found it difficult to trust in God’s unconditional forgiveness.
Christianity has been plagued by those whose only solution to immorality has been drastic action designed to discourage anyone inclined to repeat the immorality. Advocates of capital punishment belong to that group. And the Spanish Inquisition pursued such remedies with a vengeance. Jesus, however, promoted mercy and conversion of heart as the only effective and lasting answer. The blueprint for his approach is to be found in today’s gospel story.
Notice that his integrity demands that he does not gloss over the woman’s behaviour. He names it for the sin that it is, but he does not condemn the sinner. He urges her not to become trapped in guilt but to let go of her past and live her life with her heart renewed. If we don’t remember past mistakes and personal failures, we run the risk of repeating them. At the same time, it’s soul destroying to allow ourselves to become trapped by our past. Memory is an integral part of Jewish culture. The great rabbi Abraham Heschel made much of this when he said: “Much of what the Bible demands of us can be summed up in a single word: remember!” (Moral Grandeur & Spiritual Audacity, 1997). Remember in the sense of calling to mind the past and re-member in the sense of putting back together the broken pieces. Decades earlier, Heschel had written: “There is a collective memory of God in the human spirit, and it is this memory that is the main source of our faith” (The Holy Dimension, 1943). In today’s second reading, Paul remembers how he was once engaged in bitterly persecuting the early Christians. Remembering tells us something of our life journey, including both the good things we have done and experienced and the not so good. But we have to be careful not to fall into the trap of living in the past or being controlled by our past. In the gospel reading, we learn how Jesus rescued the woman whom the Pharisees wanted to condemn to death by stoning. He rescued her from being imprisoned by her shameful past, encouraging her to put back together the pieces of her broken life. Instead of shaming her further, he encouraged her to let go of the past and look to a future full of hope, reflecting in his treatment of her that she, too, shared in the “collective memory of God”.
The risk for the woman in the story was that she had a lot to live down. While those in the group that brought her to Jesus were pressured by him to reflect on their private sinfulness, she had the reputation of being a public sinner. She would have to live with gossip and the way that these Pharisees would continue to stare leeringly at her. She would have doubts as to whether her husband would forgive her. It was one thing to be assured by Jesus that God had forgiven her, but what about all her friends and neighbours? She ran the risk of being trapped in guilt. And that’s the risk we all face. Perhaps there are times when we wonder if we have been really forgiven by God for our past failures and infidelities. And most of us have probably met people who are wracked by scruples, unable to trust that God has forgiven them. One wonders what kind of God they have. And that prompts us to ask ourselves what kind of God we have. Do we believe that God loves us endlessly and unconditionally, no matter how broken our past lives have been?
Yet this story Is as much about the challenge Jesus puts to the Pharisees as it is about the forgiveness of the woman. Jesus is as aware of the seaminess of adultery as are the woman’s accusers. He does not deny the degradation of adultery or try to minimize it. But he does press the point that, before any of us wants to set about demanding that others change their evil ways, we must first change our own hearts. To make the kingdom of God a reality in the here and now, we need to develop both a lived conviction that God really does forgive us and a way of relating to others that is built on generous heartedness, forgiveness, mercy and compassion. There is nothing to be gained by comparing ourselves with those we judge to be sinners in order to give ourselves a self-satisfying pat on the back.
Robert Cormier, in his book entitled Table Talk: Beginning a conversation on the Gospel of Luke, tells the story of an old priest who often wondered about the difference between heaven and hell. One night he had a dream in which he experienced God telling him what that difference really was.
God showed him hell first, and he was stunned to see that there were no flames and no horned and pointy-tailed devils prodding others with forks. But there was a crowd of very angry people, all holding 10-foot-long wooden spoons and jostling one another as they struggled to get their spoons into large wooden bowls that were placed in the centre of picnic tables and filled to overflowing with food. But, when any of them managed to fill their spoons, they were not able to turn the spoons around and get them into their mouths. The frustration, the arguing and the bitterness were sheer hell! Then God gave the priest a look at heaven. He saw the same wooden tables and bowls and people with the same 10-foot-long wooden spoons. But there was no jostling and pushing. There was an atmosphere of real peace and contentment. Here the people were happily engaged in feeding one another.
Today’s gospel reading makes it clear that, if we are to confront the evils of the world in which we live, we have to start by confronting the evils within ourselves. We just won’t be able to life up the broken and the alienated until we realise that we, too, are broken and we, too, alienate ourselves from God and from our brothers and sisters. It is futile to think we can credibly pass judgement on others until we assess our own lives and seek the healing that God offers us. We have the capacity to create both heaven and hell in our own time and place. When we find within ourselves the willingness to feed one another from the bounty of God’s gifts to us, we will get a glimpse of heaven. Hell is nothing but the abundance of selfishness and the endless presence of bitterness and spiteful competition.
Today we are invited to put down our stones of indignation, bitterness and superiority and to look within ourselves at the place where good and evil meet and wrestle with one another. Any of us without sin can lead the stone-throwing.