The account of the woman caught in adultery is one of the most powerful events in the public ministry of Jesus. While it is true that he has on numerous occasions pronounced that one or another person’s sins were forgiven, this is the only situation where the sin is public and specific. Later in John’s Gospel, the question is posed to Jesus as to the nature of the sin of the man born blind, setting the stage for a dramatic event focusing on the contrast of sight and light versus blindness and darkness. Here, however, we have a very dramatic moment.
There are many things at stake here. First and most clearly, Jesus is being set up. Jesus is being placed in a direct juxtaposition with the Mosaic Law and its prescriptions for trial. The Pharisees want Jesus to play judge. In a sense this stands as a subtle mockery of the messianic role as judge. Just as the Kings of Israel stood as arbiters of conflict and interpreters of the law, so now the Pharisees want Jesus to act as judge in order that they might have further evidence against him. Jesus is not being asked to judge because of his wisdom or his societal role, he is being mocked as messiah.
Naturally Jesus does not fall into their trap. Well aware of what is going on around him Jesus steps out of the scene by re-contextualizing the moment. “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
Here, we note of course a bit of dramatic irony – the sinless one calls out those who accuse another of sin to dare to suggest that they are without sin. So what we know is that Jesus has set the stage where only he – unbeknownst to the Pharisees – could throw the first stone. Jesus now has indeed given to the Pharisees more than they could have asked for in evidence against him, only so hardened are they to him that they miss the significance of what has happened. Jesus has just announced his role and authority as judge. He sees, not with eyes polluted by sin, but as the sinless one who sees and knows the truth.
There stands a tremendous challenge for us in this gospel. The ubiquitous media, and the almost unquenchable thirst that many have for its attention, leaves us all too aware of the public and private sins of way too many people. Some celebrities get a pass from the press for their weaknesses, foibles and outright sinfulness, while others are brought down with much enjoyment.
Right now it would appear that we tend to revel in the fall of icons, heroes, and those we deem enemies, opponents, hypocrites or self-righteous. We also suffer from the historical myopia of judging the past as we would presume to judge the present. Everyone must think and act the same as an enlightened 21st century American, where there are no real objective standards other than those that we have proclaimed as important for our time.
This attitude, which infects even those who profess to be religious, poses as a stance with stone in hand waiting to be hurled at the opponent or offender. We are – all of us – too quick to condemn, too willing to be unforgiving, too lustful of the power of judging.
Jesus seems to demand that we put aside that tendency within us. We stand alone as individuals before God. There we have no opportunity to point a finger or compare ourselves to another. We stand before God solely on our own merits.
While for many the emphasis on this Gospel will be on the power of Jesus in forgiving the sins of this woman – and that is itself monumentally important – the underlying message seems to be that she should never have been accused in the first place. No one needs to exercise mercy more than do other sinners.
March 24 | We have much that we must take to the Cross with Jesus
“Father, forgive them, they know not what they do.”
This is the great prayer of Jesus on the Cross as recorded by the evangelist Luke. This serves not only as the prayer of Jesus in that moment of his crucifixion but also characterizes his entire public ministry. This same prayer will be said by Stephen at the moment of his own martyrdom as recorded in the Acts of the Apostles.
St. Augustine observed that the cross was not only the gallows upon which Jesus died it was also the great pulpit from which he taught us. We see in the Passion and Death of Jesus a myriad of images, words and gestures each of which stands as a profound lesson for the living out our Christian life. Many of these lessons are subtle and others duly smack us in the face. The demand to forgive stands as a profound gesture expressed most clearly in the words that Jesus pronounces here.
There is indeed much ignorance around us. There has always been but perhaps now more than at any time in recent history we suffer the hostility of ignorance. Like the crowd in the Gospel narrative who are duped by their leaders into calling for the death of Jesus and the release of Barabbas, many people who today oppose the church or the teaching of the Gospel do so not from a position of knowing and rejecting, but from the position of ignorance feigning understanding.
While it appears at first glance that the post-modern individual prefers the world of his own ideas over and against any objective truth, he does nonetheless attempt to construct a worldview that explains away everything that contradicts his own parameters of belief. Some of this has been painfully apparent in the run up to the conclave to elect the pope. The secular and even Catholic press and bloggers pronounce with a false authority what the Church needs, what must happen and even what will happen, as though they were the arbiters of truth and of history. We all want to construct the world our own way yet none of us has the power to do so with certainty or in reality. To think otherwise is to engage in a psychotic self-deception.
Jesus looks out from the Cross and does not sees a world jeering at him with crowds of people willfully reveling in his Death, rather he sees but a few. Most of the world passed by him that day paying him little or no mind. He encountered apathy and complicity in a conspiracy more that he encountered any deeply committed opposition. Jesus forgives the apathetic and those who in their ignorance are complicit.
That can be very hard for us. In an age driven by media focus one need control the message. Public relations is key. The messenger is more important than the message.
This puts us in a very challenging and difficult situation. We want to confront the world, to challenge them with the truth. We like it when we see someone boldly making the case for faith or the Church on television or in the press. Yet doesn’t it always feel so hollow. As though all we are doing is playing the fool in the hands of those who are manipulating the scene? In the face of opposition Peter sees no choice but to deny that he even knows Jesus much less that he has been his disciple from the very beginning.
It seems that from the Cross, Jesus is providing us with one very powerful message, a message that seems in every way contrary to our immediate inclinations. We must first forgive people their ignorance. To some extent, we might need to take responsibility for their ignorance, but that is for another time. Our first response to those or are hostile or who stand in opposition must first be to forgive them. Not in a way that smacks of condensation or superiority, but from the very position of the cross, where we stand with the crucified Christ.
Rev. Mr. Garry Koch, is a transitional deacon serving in St. Catharine-St. Margaret Parish, Spring Lake. He expects to be ordained a priest June 1.