The intersection of shame and guilt in a person’s life can be blistering and painful. When a sin that one thought was private becomes a matter of public record, the depth of the personal reaction takes on a range of emotions. Over the past few years we have seen many public figures in this very situation. Not only is it painful for them, it is often unnecessarily discomforting to the public that has to endure these revelations. Many times our reaction to such situations can be “over the top” and extreme. Our sense of outrage and anger can leave us blinded to the full picture of circumstances and deaf to pleas for understanding.
The Gospel recounts a situation where a woman was caught “in the very act” of committing adultery. She is dragged before Jesus for judgment.
The outrage of the Pharisees who dragged this woman in front of Jesus was more show than substance. They were less interested in her than they were in the response from Jesus. She became the foil in a deeper and more sinister agenda. They were attempting to box Jesus in to making a judgment on the application of the Mosaic Law. He didn’t fall into the trap, rather turning the episode back on them.
The fact that the woman was primarily a prop in a show trial does not diminish her sinfulness. . She did not deny her circumstance and she may well have been more of a public spectacle than John mentions in the account. One must expect that she was either totally or largely unclad as she was hauled before Jesus.
Not only then is this woman guilty of a serious sin, she is also brought to shame before the Pharisees, the crowd gathered with Jesus and his disciples, and with Jesus himself. Her nakedness – the sign of her public shame – further exacerbated her situation. It would be difficult if not impossible, for her to ever appear publically there again.
We must always be careful in how we treat the private sins and weaknesses of others. Our hope is – or at least should be – that we always seek the welfare and the eternal salvation of the other. This means, that more like St. Joseph who decided not to bring Mary to public shame when he mistakenly thought she was guilty of sin, we need to exercise care in how we treat others in their sins.
To expose one’s guilt and to bring public shame are two different events, but they often get confused and intertwined. The desire to shame someone is often borne of a desire to humiliate and destroy, rather than to bring healing and forgiveness. While there are certainly situations that call out for justice and some form of restitution, some of which can only be done publicly, to revel in their downfall is itself sinful.
The response of Jesus to the woman’s accusers: “Let the one among you who is without sin
be the first to throw a stone at her” is startling and disconcerting to the crowd. Confronted with their own sinfulness, the Pharisees and those assembled there chose not to condemn her, and Jesus does not condemn her either. In their own sense of shame and guilt, the crowd drifted away from Jesus and the woman, leaving him alone with her.
His instruction to her is equally stark: “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”
She does not seek – nor does Jesus offer – words of forgiveness as he so often does. She is before him, not because she was moved by her own conscience, but because she was exposed by others.
In the end, what did this woman learn? That we cannot know. We can be sure that none of the Pharisees had any concern for her. We can only pray that Jesus’ instruction resonated with her. May it also resonate with us.[[In-content Ad]]
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.