March 25, 2007
Accuser or Accused?
Patricia Datchuck Sánchez
When a person has difficulty seeing objects at a distance, there is a name for his/her condition; we call it myopia. So also, when a person is unable to focus on nearby objects, we have a name for their condition, presbyopia. But, by what name do we call a person’s penchant for focusing on the sins of another and assigning blame rather than recognizing oneself as sinful and humbly refusing to cast blame on anyone other than oneself? In the gospels of Matthew (7:3-5) and Luke (6:41-42), Jesus described this condition in terms of seeing the speck (splinter or mote) in another’s eye and of failing to be mindful of the log (beam or plank) in one’s own. But in John’s gospel, which is featured in today’s liturgy, Jesus described this all too common human weakness in much more graphic terms. He calls us to watch as the scribes and Pharisees bring forward a woman caught in the act of adultery. He looks to see if we too are ready to assign blame. He glances at our hands to see if we have picked up stones, thereby presuming the divine prerogative of judgment. He listens to hear if our voice is among those of her accusers. Peering knowingly into the glass house, where we dwell in comfortable self-righteousness, Jesus challenges us to assess our right to be the first to begin her execution.
He longs to know if we have learned and made our own the mind and heart of God who desires only goodness and freedom and justice and peace for sinners. He wonders if we appreciate the fact that God does not want sinners to dwell on past guilt but rather to reach out in hope for the new beginning that comes with God’s generous and merciful forgiveness (Isaiah, first reading). Jesus also wants to ascertain if we, like Paul (Philippians, second reading) have developed a system of values that places God first and above all else, including wealth and well being, including my own interpretation of and desire to mete out justice as well as my sense of my own importance. Jesus wants to know if we have decided to live our lives in complete conformity to Christ, counting all else as unimportant and useless rubbish. If I am Christ’s and if my mind and heart and will are also Christ’s, then there can be no place within me for the desire to blame, or judge or condemn others to suffer for their sins.
Then, and as if to further assess my values, my desires and my belonging, Jesus suddenly begins to doodle on the ground with his finger. What is he doodling? No one can say with any degree of certainty but some have suggested that Jesus was listing the sins of those present. If he had written Pride, which the Italian poet, philosopher and statesman, Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) once defined as a “love of self perverted to hatred and contempt for one’s neighbor” (Purgatory, section of The Divine Comedy), would we be forced to drop our stones and walk away? Or would our departure hinge upon the sin of Lust also identified by Dante as “excessive love of others thereby detracting from our love of God.” Perhaps, Envy would cause us to leave the scene if we recognize it as a “love of one’s own good, perverted to a desire to deprive others of theirs” (D.A.). If we saw Greed or Gluttony traced in the dry sands of Judah, would these sins of excessive indulgence coupled with wastefulness and a refusal to share generously of this world’s good with others force us to absent ourselves? Maybe Sloth, “the failure to love God with all one’s heart, all one’s mind and all one’s strength” (D. A.) would do us in. In the unlikely event that we find ourselves still standing round the humiliated adulteress with stone in hand, then perhaps Wrath, “the love of justice perverted to spite and revenge” (D.A.) might see us gone and empty handed.
Having come away from the scene of condemnation with our focus redirected from the sins of others to our own, we realize, gratefully, and again with Paul (second reading) that our course is not yet complete. While we still have breath within us and until we are finally called home by God to justice and to judgment, to reward or retribution, to resurrection or to everlasting loss, we have time to grow, to deepen, to change and to repent. In a word, we have today and, God willing, we have this Lent, or what remains of it, to become not the accuser but the accused, i.e. the self-aware and humbly acknowledged sinner who long to hear the words that signal new hope and new life: “Nor do I condemn you. Go, and do not sin again.”
When contemporary believers and readers of this proclamation recall that the world into which it was spoken was politically chaotic and the people for whom it was intended were spiritually depressed by their circumstances, it becomes all the more a celebration of God’s salvific power. In the latter half of the sixth century B.C.E., the people of Israel found themselves without a land to call their own; that land, the Promised Land had been seized by Babylonian armies earlier in that century and the elite and influential Israelites had been forced into exile. As Paul D. Hanson (Isaiah 40-66, John Knox Press, Louisville, Ky.: 1995) has pointed out, the loss of native land could readily have been attributed to the powerlessness of their God to secure the safety and well being of the nation. And, because its identity as a people was inextricably bound to the land of God’s promise, the extinction of the people that had descended from Abraham and Sarah could certainly have been regarded as a feasible possibility.
Into this world of loss and lagging hopes, stepped the prophet about whom we know relatively little, not even his/her name. Nevertheless, through the work attributed to this prophet, we are just in touch with a spirit so hopeful and so trusting in God as to be contagious. Particularly contagious was the prophet’s enthusiasm about the possibilities of a new beginning for his exiled contemporaries; the ramifications of that fresh start are detailed in today’s first reading.
With terminology reminiscent of their initial genesis as a people, e.g., “a way in the sea,” “chariots and horsemen” army, “never to rise,” “snuffed out.” the prophet signaled a triumphant return to Israel that could be deemed comparable to the Exodus. For their part, the people are exhorted to “remember not the events of the past,” so as to be able to “see” that God is doing “something new.” But how can a people be asked to “remember not” when the very process of remembering was so vital an aspect of their liturgy and their relationship with God? Elsewhere in the prophet’s sharing are exhortations to “remember this and be firm, bear it well in mind … remember the former things …” (46:8-9). However, what may seem, at first glance, like a contradiction is actually a challenge. It is a challenge, insists Hanson (op. cit.) to muster sufficient theological imagination so as to let go of the nostalgia of past memories and be open to the divine purpose newly unfolding in profane political events. Far from imposing the mold of the past on their present experiences, God reveals to those who will see “something new.” To perceive and grasp this new thing and all its possibilities, the people must let go of the comfort of the past and be receptive to opportunities as yet unimagined. They must look ahead and not backward; they must allow their faith to sharpen their sensibilities so as to recognize, welcome and appropriate the actions of the God who is creating their future, before their very eyes.
This was the challenge of the prophet’s sixth century BCE contemporaries but what meaning can Deutero-Isaiah’s proclamation of salvation have for twenty-first century believers? Are we not also exiles in a sense? Sin, repeated sin, has alienated us from God and as we mourn that loss, the God whom we meet each Lent calls us to remember not the past. Don’t dwell on sin or guilt but on forgiveness and on God. With eyes open and a heart ready to embrace an unfolding future, God calls us to return – not to the same, comfortable relationship we shared with God before sin but to a new and yet unimagined depth of loving and giving and serving that has yet to be revealed. If and when we declare our willingness to live on the precipice of whatever God may reveal, and to follow an as yet unmapped path, we are assured that whatever comes and wherever we go, God’s grace and God’s abiding presence will be ever present and available to sustain and strengthen us all along the way.
In a piece called Simplify! Simplify!, Henry David Thoreau explained his reasons for building a house in which to live and for remaining there on the shore of Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts from July 4, 1845 to September 6, 1847. “I went to the woods,” wrote Thoreau, “because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life … I wanted to live deep and suck all the marrow out of life … to know it by experience and be able to give a true account of it.” What Thoreau sought for and learned on the shore of a pond in nineteenth century New England, Paul sought for and found and learned in the person of Jesus Christ.
In Christ and with Christ, Paul learned what it was to live, truly, faithfully and purposefully. In Christ and through Christ, Paul developed a system of values by which he lived and because of which he would eventually die. Because Christ became the supreme value in his life, all else, by comparison was as nothing. This is the conviction Paul shared with his beloved Philippians and which he shares with us today. Paul’s sharing prompted his readers of the first Christian century and continues to prompt twenty-first century believers to take similar stock of our lives and, with similar conviction, to reach the same conclusion.
Paul’s decision for Christ was being weighed in this context against his former path to righteousness, viz., Judaism. In verses preceding this declaration, Paul detailed his Jewish résumé, as it were, citing his birth as a Jew, his circumcision, his tribe (Benjamin) and his training in the Law as a Pharisee (3:4-7). However dear his heritage had been to him, Paul was aware that it did not produce for him true justification or a right relationship with God. These gifts were made available to Paul and to all through the person and saving ministry of Jesus Christ. Therefore, aside from Jesus Christ, Paul counted all else as skubala (rubbish). Skubala, as William Barclay (“The Letter to the Philippians,” The Daily Study Bible, The Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh, UK: 1975) has explained has two meanings. In common usage, it meant “that which is known to the dogs”; in medical terminology, skubala meant “excrement” or “dung” (Rheims NT), or “rubbish” (NRSV, NAB, JB) or “refuse” (RSV) or “filth” (NJB). However it is rendered, Paul’s point is clear; he had discovered that salvation and all other good gifts reside in Jesus Christ and cannot be achieved or earned or won by works. On the contrary, all these blessings are accorded those who accept them as God’s gifts and appropriate them in faith. To that end, Paul gave himself fully to Christ, desiring to know him in every way, in his service and his suffering, in his dying and his rising to everlasting life.
Aware that his incorporation into Christ was an ongoing process, Paul described that process in terms of an athlete running a race, a metaphor that was no doubt appealing to his Greek readers for whom the Olympic games were so significant. With no regard for what he was distancing himself from, Paul never looked back. Rather, he kept his attention on the finish line. Again, his use of an athletic term, epekteinomenos, which describes a runner lunging forward and going all out for the tape, drives home Paul’s point. He was pushing hard; he may, due to all the opposition he faced, experience what runners call “hitting the wall” but Paul would work through it and continue. He encourages his readers to do no less.
Once an independent narrative of disputed origin and only later inserted into the Johannine gospel (it began to appear in the standard Greek text of John only in the tenth century CE), this text was, nevertheless accepted by Jerome and included in the Vulgate. Some have suggested that this story is, indeed, as ancient as the gospels but was not included in the canonical scriptures (it does appear in the gospel according to the Hebrews which survives only in quotations by Papias (2nd century CE), Clement of Alexandria (2nd century CE), Origin (3rd century CE), Cyril (4th century CE), and Jerome (4th century CE) because the ease with which Jesus forgave the adulteress was difficult to reconcile with the rigid discipline that was practiced in the early Church. Nevertheless, and despite the tendency of humans to reduce the mercies of God to their own meager measurements, this story is a part of the gospel. Raymond E. Brown (The Gospel According to John, Doubleday, New York, N.Y.: 1966) was correct in insisting that no apology is needed for this fact, because this narrative studies the delicate balance between the justice of Jesus, who does not condone the sin and his mercy in forgiving the sinner. Would that all the followers of Jesus might strive to strike a similar balance.
Rather than quibble over its origin or inclusion in the gospel, William Barclay (“The Gospel of John,” The Daily Study Bible, The Saint Andrew Press, Edinburgh, UK: 1975) joined his voice to Brown’s et al. in identifying the lessons this narrative teaches. In forgiving the woman, Jesus did not do so lightly as if her sin were of no consequence. Rather, he deferred judgment so that the woman could go and try her best, with God’s grace, to sin no more. Jesus’ attitude toward the sinful woman involved several things, says Barclay:
It involved the second chance, i.e., a gift of added time and the opportunity to live her life differently. Jesus, ever the optimist, was more concerned with what a person might become rather than with what the person had been. He affirmed that human beings have a future as well as a past.
It involved pity, or, better yet, compassion. While others condemned and judged, Jesus sought to understand; while others hated and denigrated the weak, Jesus offered his strength and caring to them.
It involved challenge. Far from dismissing the gravity of the woman’s sin and its consequences, Jesus called her to become her best self, the self that was a clearer reflection of the God in whose image she had been created.
It involved belief in human nature and in the as yet untapped potential for goodness in the woman. She had sinned, yes, but in responsiveness to Jesus’ word and God’s grace, she would become a saint.
It involved warning. The story of the unnamed adulteress reminds us that we stand beside her, rightly accused of sin. Whether it be adultery or apathy, pride or prejudice, greed or envy or lust, her story confronts us with a choice. Do we accept the second chance and challenge Jesus offers or do we return to commit the familiar and almost comfortable catalogue of sins that have become so rote in our confessing? Do we dare to come away from our Lenten encounter with Jesus and live differently or not? For now, Jesus tells us, as he did the woman, “Go and sin no more.” But one day, Jesus will require an accounting of our responsiveness to his loving mercies. When that time comes, the consequences thereof shall be unequivocal and eternal.
March 25, 2007, Sample Homily for Fifth Sunday of Lent
“A Story About Us”
by Fr. James Smith
Headlines, a literary genre all their own, are created by special editors. You might think that the one who reported a story could best summarize the gist of the story. But that is not the purpose of a headline — it is to grab attention, often by distorting the facts. Tabloid headlines are notorious: “Jesus and Magdalene Elope!”
The traditional headline for today’s gospel story is “The Woman Caught in Adultery.” Tabloid headlines might be “Jesus Squelches Scribes” or “The Lady’s Not a Tramp.” Headlines betray the bias of the writer and blur the subtle nuances of the truth.
This apparently simple story is rather complicated. There is no doubt that the woman is guilty — they caught her in embarrassment. A good defense attorney might readily note the absence of the male partner. After all, it takes two to adulterate. But after all the legal moves, the facts were clear: she had flagrantly broken a law of their society. Legal precedent was on the side of the prosecutors,. who quoted “Moses v Jezebel,” the law that orders that adulterous women be condemned to death by stoning.
Jesus does not question the facts, but he adroitly attacks the woman’s accusers at their weakest point. He admits that the woman has committed a crime, a sin. But he tells the accusers to judge themselves before they dare judge anyone else.
He says something like this: “If you have never committed adultery — even in your heart; if you have never lied, stolen or cheated on your taxes; if you have no juvenile record that is sealed from public scrutiny; if you have absolutely no guilt on your soul — then pick up the sharpest stone and fire away.”
Give the accusers this: at least they admitted that they were not sinless. That would seem obvious to anyone; but in a mob atmosphere, the truth can get smothered in emotional violence. Fortunately for the woman — and Jesus — there were enough elders among the crowd who had committed enough sins to realize just how complicated life is and how vulnerable innocence is.
Jesus won the case and saved the woman. If that had been his purpose, he would have adjourned at that point. But instead, he addressed the woman: “Don’t come back to this court again.”
Jesus knew that he could not condone sin; and he knew that justice would always be meted out by less than sinless people. Thieving jurors would be obliged to convict others of larceny; alcoholic priests would have to preach against drunkenness. Legal systems are imperfect — they do not make people better; they are just a hedge against the relentless encroachment of evil.
This story was never about the woman. If so, Jesus could have pled mercy on the basis that this stoning penalty had not been applied in many years because it was cruel and unusual punishment. This story was not about the accusers — everyone knows that no one is without some guilt.
This story was about all of us. It is a dramatic reminder that judging other people is a dangerous activity that might mirror our own guilt. It warns us that no one but God can read the human heart. It tells us that a religion that labels and stones is a tabloid religion. It cautions us that righteous condemnation is bumper-sticker morality.