In today’s gospel story of the woman caught in the act of Adultery, to get something out of it for ourselves, we need to forget that this is a story of men once again casting the burden of sin on the woman (Genesis 3:6), we need to forget the anger that self-righteously points out that the man, the other half of this act of adultery, is not here with her to be shamed and publicly humiliated. Better to think of it as a story of the unfaithfulness of God’s Chosen People (Hosea 2), his chosen spouse, and so see the woman as the stand-in for all God’s Chosen People, the representative of us all who have been caught out being unfaithful to God — in our sinfulness we are all God’s unfaithful spouse; we are all The Adulterer.
Yet this story is not really about her. It’s really about those others, those who turn up at public executions to condemn and jeer at the one being pilloried (Mark 15:29ff), those who turn up at such spectacles with their rucksacks filled with stones ready to throw, without realising that in so doing they condemned themselves to live in a hard world. (Matthew 27:44) Before we deny being among their number (Luke 18:11), as regular readers of the media and watchers of TV programs that delight in rubbishing people and destroying their lives, perhaps we might recall just how many people in, say, just this last week we have passed judgement on and taken delight in the fact that they are now getting only what they deserve. How many have we been willing to extend the hand of love and compassion to? One thinks, for instance, of those in this last week’s news who foolishly went off to join Islamic State but now find themselves languishing in some hellhole in the Middle East, and out of which they are unable to get themselves or their children. Our instinct is to punish and even destroy the wrongdoer. Every day the media panders to this, condemning and even claiming to be ‘shocked’ over their misdemeanours — and they invite us to join in in tossing our stones, and so often we willing do. How are we to get ourselves to where we can say with Jesus: “Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more”?
This is where the plight of the woman comes in. In her, we, each one of us, are invited to see ourselves caught out being unfaithful to our God. In this story, we need to see this woman merely as one who does not keep the Law, one like ourselves. They demand she be stoned; we need to feel ourselves as deserving only to be stoned for what we have done. This story invites us to put ourselves in her position: to imagine ourselves caught out in doing whatever it is that we do/have done that we would not care for others to know about, caught out and then paraded before others in our shame. In being found out, what can we ask for ourselves? — we can feel only the misery and utter aloneness of our guilt, and know the helplessness of knowing that at most all we can do is shamelessly and hopelessly beg for some mercy we do not deserve. (Matthew 18:26; Luke 16:24) And then, in hearing God in Jesus say, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and sin no more,” we need to feel our heartfelt gratitude at the shock of such incredible and undeserved mercy (John 8:11; Matthew 18:27) — feel it so strongly that the next time we find ourselves reaching for a stone to cast at another, we remember and hear in it Jesus saying to us: “I forgave your entire debt when you begged me for mercy. Shouldn’t you be merciful when your neighbour is in need of your mercy?'’ (C.f.: Matthew 18:32-33) We need to be mindful of our own sinfulness, of our own need for mercy, and find there in our hearts the compassion that we are in such desperate need of ourselves. So will we understand the words of the prayer we will shortly say together that Jesus taught us to pray: “Forgive us as we forgive.” (Luke 11:4; Matthew 6:12) For sinners such as ourselves, the old adage holds true: ‘People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.’ None of us can afford to throw stones.
What are we to do when another sins against us? We are not called to paper it over and pretend it didn’t happen. Rather, we are called to choose not to remember (Isaiah 65:17), to not so hold it against the other that we cannot go on together. This is what Jesus means when he says, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and sin no more.” In forgiveness is a call to change our ways, to stop doing what we do that causes harm to another, so that we can go on together. “How often must we forgive our neighbour who keeps offending us? Seven times?” Jesus answers, “Not seven times, but seventy times seven times!” (Matthew 18:21-22) Jesus tells us what is at stake: “If your sister or brother does something wrong, go and have it out with them alone, between your two selves. If they listen to you, you have won back your sister or brother.” (Matthew 18:15) Jesus’ is a radical call, to love not just our sister or brother, but one which ultimately pushes us out to embrace the whole of humanity (1 John 4:20): “But if you will listen, I say to you, love your enemies and do something wonderful for them in return for their hatred. When someone curses you, bless that person in return. When you are mistreated and harassed by others, accept it as your mission to pray for them. To those who despise you, continue to serve them and minister to them. If someone takes away your coat, give him as a gift your shirt as well. When someone comes to beg from you, give to that person what you have. When things are wrongly taken from you, do not demand they be given back. However you wish to be treated by others, is how you should treat everyone else.” (Luke 6:27-31)
This is a call to empty our rucksack of stones, and instead to find some way to call on them to change their ways (Luke 23:34) so that we might be able to go on and live together in relative harmony — Jesus aims to usher in the new heavens and the new earth of the Kingdom (Isaiah 65:17); he wants us to do our bit. Where we are to start is with the one with whom we live, and there learn how to live without throwing stones at each other. (1 John 4:20)
By Dom Steele Hartmann ocso