Loving the Sinner
March 28, 2004
Hate the sin. Love the sinner. We have heard this expression hundreds of times but it still rings true. It succinctly identifies a central teaching of Jesus. Hate the sin. Love the sinner. Today’s gospel might be seen as a dramatic enactment of that saying. The sin in the story is clear. The woman was caught in the very act of adultery. Everyone in the story, hates the sin: the crowd, the leaders, Jesus, even the woman herself. They are all united in hating the sin. There is a disagreement, however, on what to do with the sinner. Some believe that she should be executed, stoned for her crime. Jesus believes that she should not. As we watch this story unfold, three things emerge: a principle, a qualification, and a command.
The principle is this: No person should be equated with his or her sin. People are responsible for their sins, but no person should be defined simply by the sins they commit. Jesus sees the sin of the woman but he sees something more. He also sees the part of the woman that remains good, the part that could change, the hope that things could be different. This basic insight of Jesus has been reflected through subsequent centuries in Catholic teaching. For Catholics believe that the dignity and worth of every person remains despite the crimes or sins they may commit. Regardless of the horrible things that people do, we continue to believe that the image of God within them is never completely erased.
This is why the consistent teaching in the Catholic tradition has been that the taking of human life, even when legally justified, is only a last resort. This is why our present pope has spoken tirelessly throughout his pontificate against capital punishment, why he routinely appeals in almost every execution that the life of the criminal be spared. You might remember that John Paul II appealed for the life of Timothy McVeigh. Why? Because the Pope believed in Jesus’ fundamental principle: No person can be completely defined by his or her sin. There always remains a part of every person that is good, a part that can be loved.
Now this is a real challenge to us who would follow Christ. Because when people attack us, when people hurt us, we are strongly inclined to simply see them as bad people, as people without any worth or value. Yet the teaching of Jesus reminds us that there is more, that there remains in each person a dignity and value that cannot be taken away. We are challenged to find that value. Because it is only in claiming that hidden goodness that we can ever get beyond our hurt, ever reconcile ourselves to what has happened, ever find the power to forgive. The fundamental principle, then, is that no person can be equated with his or her sin.
That leads us to the qualification. The qualification is: we must protect ourselves. Even as we try to recognize the good that remains in every person, we cannot be naïve and ignore the harm that can come from a person’s actions. We must take steps to prevent people from blowing up buildings, from using violence to attain their ends. We must take steps to protect ourselves from those who would manipulate us and abuse us. Jesus says to the woman, “Go, but from now on do not sin again.” Jesus is not naïve about the power of sin and neither should we be naïve.
So as followers of Christ we are caught between a principle and a qualification. We seek some way of making these two truths work together. Even as we try to protect ourselves from the actions of those who could harm us, the teaching of Jesus propels us to keep looking for the goodness and the dignity that remains in every human person. Therefore, as we try to gauge our response to those who attack or hurt us, we must do so with profound humility. We should never react in vengeance or hatred. We should always limit our response to the absolute minimum required to protect ourselves.
Yet we are usually inclined to go further. Once we have taken steps to protect ourselves, we still want to know if it is valid to strike back at the one who has hurt us. This desire leads to the command. Jesus says to those who challenge him, “Let the one here who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her.” When we ask whether we can respond in violence beyond the need to protect ourselves, Jesus says we can, but only if we are without sin. That pretty much settles the matter, doesn’t it? Jesus has given us a command that we cannot follow, for none of us are without sin ourselves. Clearly, if we would follow his command, there will be no throwing of stones here.
Reading the Seasons of Life
March 25, 2007
John 8: 1 – 11
There was a wise Persian king who had four sons. The king saw that his chief responsibility was to make sure that his sons grew up with wisdom knowing how to live. So one winter day he said to eldest son, ‘Look I own a farm in the next village and in that farm there is a huge mango tree. It costs me a great deal to maintain it. I want you to go and examine this tree and make a judgment whether is worth the investment. I plan to ask your brothers to do the same.” So the eldest son went and looked at the tree. When spring came the king sent his second son. He sent his third son in summer and his youngest son in the fall. Then he called the boys together to make their judgment. The eldest son spoke first, “Father,” he said, “this tree is nothing more than a barren stump, I would cut it down.” The second son had a different opinion, “Father,” he said, “the tree is covered with many luxurious leaves and produces much shade, but you would have to weigh whether the shade that is produced is worth the cost of maintenance.” The third son fundamentally agreed with his brother, “I saw beautiful flowers on the tree as well but father you will have to decide whether you plan to visit this tree and enjoy the flowers. If you choose not to do this, it is probably not worth the cost of maintenance.” But the youngest son disagreed strongly with his brothers. “Father,” he said, “I have never seen such huge and luxurious fruit on any tree. It would bring a fortune in the marketplace. I say this tree must be maintained no matter what the cost.” The father was satisfied and smiled, “Each of you is correct, for each of you saw the tree at a different time. The lesson is clear – if you wish to be wise, you should withhold your judgment until you have seen the tree in all of its seasons.”
This story relates to the Gospel because today’s passage is about judgments and how we make them. The people around Jesus were quick and ready to judge the woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They saw her as a sinner and they said she should be punished. Their judgment was correct and Jesus did not debate it. But without excusing her sin Jesus chose to see the woman in a larger context. He could imagine her in a different season, in a season that was different from the barren and sinful season in which she now stood. He could imagine her in a season that was productive and full of life. Jesus challenged his listeners and challenges us to give the woman another chance, to suspend judgment in light of another season which could produce much fruit.
This larger vision of Jesus supports his frequent teaching that we should not judge others. He tells us that we should not judge not because our judgments are incorrect but because they are often incomplete. There are many seasons to every person’s life. In light of the better seasons the wise person refrains from judging and making a final judgment today.
Now there’s a caveat that comes with Jesus’ teaching. When he tells us that we are not to judge others he does not mean that we are to let others take advantage of us. We must make judgments to protect ourselves from those who would manipulate us or abuse us. We must make judgments to protect ourselves and those that we love from those who would harm us because of their selfishness or dysfunction. To make such judgments is not only good but necessary. But when Jesus calls us not to judge others, he asks us not to make a final judgment. We should not be too quick to write off those whom we dislike or those with whose ideas and actions we disagree. Even though we know others are wrong dead wrong, even when we are convinced that there is no way we can condone their actions, Jesus nevertheless says that we should postpone final judgment in light of the better seasons that might be produced in their lives, in light of the better people that they might someday become.
This teaching is not easy. All of us can think of people whom we are ready to judge, people that we would be quick to reject. How do we find the strength to withhold final judgment? Jesus shows us the way. In today’s Gospel when others were ready and willing to pass final judgment on the woman who was caught in adultery he asks them to think of their weakness, to think of their sins. Jesus says anyone here who is without win should be the first to cast a stone at her. In the same way when we are filled with anger and righteousness and ready to judge another, Jesus asks us to think of our worst season. Then we should remember the time when we messed up the most, when we acted with deep selfishness, when we hurt someone unjustly. Jesus knows that if we remember our worst season, it may give us the freedom not to judge someone in their worst season. When we remember our weakness and sin, we might find the freedom to accept another in light of the better person they have the potential to become.
Jesus tells us that it is not our role to judge another. This is not because our judgment would be incorrect, but because it would be incomplete. Once we have taken steps to protect ourselves and those we love from harm, it is not our role to condemn anyone. Instead we are asked to entrust others to God’s care, hoping that what is wrong in their life might change and what is barren in their life might in time product fruit.
The Grace of Doodling
What do you do when you have to face a crisis in your life? If you’re like me, you panic. When we realize that somebody in our family is abusing drugs, when we receive a negative medical diagnosis, when there is an upheaval at work, we react quickly and emotionally, often concluding that the worst possible thing is about to happen. In the face of crisis it is easy for us to over-react and sometime to strike out in frustration and anger at others. We are emotional, quick to respond, and quick to conclude that the crisis will soon overwhelm us. It is for this reason that we must pay particular attention to what Jesus does in today’s gospel: because in the gospel Jesus faces a crisis, or more specifically a trap.
In Jesus’ time there was a constant conflict between Romans and Jews. Jesus opponents created a trap to ensnarl Jesus in the middle of this conflict. They brought to him a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. According to the Mosaic Law she should be executed. But according to the Roman law Jews were not permitted to execute anyone. So they asked Jesus to choose. If he decided that she should be executed, he would position himself against the Romans. If he decided that she should not be executed, he would appear to set aside the Mosaic Law. It was a perfect trap. It appeared that Jesus had no positive options, and that is what made the trap a crisis.
Now, what does Jesus do when he realizes that he is in this crisis? Unlike us, he does not panic. He does not strike out in anger. Instead, he doodles. As his opponents press him for an answer and continue to attack the woman, Jesus withdraws from the emotional frenzy. He bends down and begins to doodle with his finger on the ground. Now this act of doodling is in fact an act of faith. Jesus believes that God is in charge of all things, and that God has a way through which he can escape this trap. But the way out of the trap was not yet clear to Jesus, so he waits. He doodles in prayer waiting for God to show him the way. He waits for God’s inspiration.
The inspiration comes. Jesus realizes that the way out of the trap is to enlarge the discussion, to realize that the test is wider than a woman’s sin and how she should be punished. He moves the debate to our shared sin and how we all will be held accountable. Graced by this insight, Jesus straightens up and says, “Let anyone here who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her.” By this remark he shifts the discussion from the woman’s sin to our sin, from strict justice to hoped for mercy. The trap is unhinged. All that waits to be seen is how his opponents will react. Again, Jesus chooses to wait. He bends down and continues to trace with his finger in the dust. One by one his opponents are converted. Aware of their own sinfulness, they move from violence to mercy. The crisis has been averted and hearts have been changed because Jesus chose to wait for God’s inspiration and grace.
When we face crisis in our own lives, we are called to follow the example of Jesus. Now clearly, if in a crisis there is a clear action which must be taken, we should do it. But in those situations where no way forward is clear, where it seems like we have no real options, when it feels like we have just entered a trap; we are not called to react emotionally, or to cry out in despair or panic. We are called to trust and to wait for God to show us the way.
In those circumstances, we are called to pause and wait in silence, believing that God has a plan and in time, that plan will become clear. In time, a door will open, words will be given, an escape will be provided. But until that time comes, we are asked to doodle and believe that God will not forget us. For believers, doodling is not a waste of time or a denial of the crisis, it is an act of trust that God is in charge and that our escape is imminent—that our salvation is at hand.
Our Doodling God
March 17, 2013
John 8: 1 – 11
The question that always arises when we hear today’s gospel is: What was Jesus writing on the ground with his finger? The gospel itself does not tell us. This has given rise to numerous interpretations throughout the centuries. One suggestion is that Jesus was writing the sins of those in the crowd who were about to stone the woman. Another possibility is that Jesus was writing some notes for himself, getting together the argument by which he proposed to set the woman free.
But, there is another possibility we should consider. The Greek word that we translate “to write,” literally means “to draw” or “to make lines.” So maybe, instead of Jesus forming letters of the alphabet in the ground, Jesus was simply drawing lines or figures. In other words, perhaps Jesus was doodling. If this was the case, then Jesus’ action is not about writing but about waiting, waiting for those in the crowd to see the truth.
Now Jesus was certainly capable of mounting an argument to answer the questions of the Scribes and the Pharisees. He could have used the Mosaic Law itself to make the case that stoning did not apply to this woman. He could have drawn on the long tradition of mercy which is found in the Hebrew Scriptures to assert that mercy should be extended to the woman who stood in their midst. But Jesus did not adopt any of these strategies. He did not offer an argument. He instead gave the crowd time to think. He bent down and occupied himself in silence, providing a space in which those in the crowd could examine what was in their own hearts and determine whether it was right to carry out the action of violence which they were contemplating.
Giving time to the crowd was a way of Jesus expressing his belief that there was a basic goodness in their hearts. Jesus believed that with enough time that goodness would emerge and would lead them to the right conclusion. And, Jesus’ strategy worked. After a time, one by one, the violent mob dropped their stones and went away.
Now the gospel is suggesting that God deals with us in the same way that Jesus dealt with the crowd. God understands how often we hold tight to stones that can harm ourselves and others. They can be stones of prejudice. We know that God has created all people equal and that every person has value. Yet we can cling tightly to the conviction that some people are better than others and that some people do not deserve our respect and care. The stones might be our resentment and anger over a hurt. We know that Jesus asks us to forgive, to forgive even our enemies. Every day we pray that God would forgive us as we forgive those who trespass against us. Yet at times we cannot let go of the hurt that has been leveled against us. We cannot forgive our brother or our sister from our heart. Our stones might be habit of sins that do us no good, habits of pride, impatience, impurity, or criticism. We might at times have the strength to put those stones down. But before we know it, they are in our hands again impeding our motion and weighing us down.
God knows the stones to which we cling, and yet God does not attack us because of our foolishness. God does not shake us trying to move us out of our stubbornness. God gives us time to think. God stoops down and writes with his finger in the dust of time, watching and waiting as people love us, as blessings come to us, as we grow in faith and thankfulness.
God believes that there is a goodness in us. God believes that with the right amount of time that goodness can emerge and reveal the foolishness of our prejudice, convincing us that the sins that we cling to do not belong in our hands. God is waiting, waiting for us to see. God is doodling, providing the time by which we can recognize that the sins that we cling to only lessen our lives. The time that God gives us is a sign of the trust that God has in us.
So, should not today be the day that we trust God in return? Should not today be the day when we let the stones fall from our hands? Should not today be the day we walk away from anger and sin so that we can enter into the new life that only God’s grace can give?
An Oasis for Everyone
March 13, 2016
Pope Francis has asked us to consider this year a year of mercy. The mercy in question is primarily the mercy of God. God extends mercy to us, even though we fall short, even though we are sinners. Our very relationship with God would be impossible without a free graciousness on God’s part. Jesus, of course, reflects the mercy of God, and we would be hard pressed to find a clearer example of this than today’s gospel. The woman who is brought before Jesus was guilty. She was caught in the very act of adultery. She stood as a sinner according to Mosaic Law and equally so according to Christian moral teaching. Jesus rejects the sin, but shows mercy to the sinner. Jesus seems to be more concerned about the future goodness of this woman than about condemning the evil of her past. Jesus clearly reflects the mercy of God.
But mercy is not meant to end with God. It extends to us. If God is a God of mercy, we too must be merciful. Pope Francis said it this way when inaugurating the Year of Mercy, “Wherever there are Christians, everyone should find an oasis of mercy.” Now the image of the oasis is an apt one, because when we look at the values and at the rhetoric of our society, it often appears as a desert in which mercy is hard to find. What is popular in our society is not mercy, but stricter laws, power moves, the desire to strike back and get even. We do not look for leaders who show compassion. We seek strongmen who can throw their weight around. Fewer and fewer people see any value to a graciousness that goes beyond legalism and vindictive justice.
Being merciful is clearly counter-cultural. And to make it even more of a challenge, mercy is meant to extend to everyone: to Christians and to Muslims, to citizens and to immigrants, to those who are repentant and to those who have not yet found the way to repentance. “Wherever there are Christians, everyone should find an oasis of mercy.” That’s a big order. It takes courage to exercise mercy in a society that sees mercy as weakness. It takes conviction to believe that mercy is a sign of the goodness and the power of God.
So how do we find the strength to be people of mercy? We remember God’s mercy to us. If God were to judge us on strict justice, all of us would fall. But day after day, God extends mercy to us, so that we might continue to live. Having received that mercy, how can we choose to judge and condemn others who look to us for mercy?
God’s mercy and our mercy are connected. Every day we pray, “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.” If we do not forgive others, how can we expect to be forgiven? If we show mercy, mercy will be shown to us. That is why it is crucial not only for others but also for us to be an oasis of mercy and to extend that mercy to everyone.
April 7, 2019
It is important for us to recognize that the people standing around the woman who was caught in adultery in today’s gospel are not a crowd. They are a mob. They are a group of people dedicated to inflicting violence on someone they feel is guilty. Mobs are dangerous. Someone in a mob will participate in violence that he or she would never consider as an individual. Being a part of a mob generates a feeling of indisputable righteousness and unity—even though the actions of a mob are often unjust and contemptible. This unity in group violence is as early as civilization. The people witnessing refined tortures executed upon criminals in the Roman Colosseum were not spectators. They were a mob. The same is true for those who cheered at the deaths of people in the Spanish Inquisition, the Salem Witch Trials, and the lynching of black Americans— which lasted in this country until 1968.
Mobs are deadly and Jesus is opposed to them. But what is important in today’s gospel is to recognize the way that Jesus diffuses the violence of the mob. He does not debate with the mob over the woman’s sin. He does not oppose the violence of the mob with violence of his own. Instead of feeding the mob, he scatters it. He says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to cast a stone at her.” The key word here is “one.” Jesus wants the people around him to stop thinking like a mob and start thinking as individuals. He does not want them to ask, ‘what should the mob do?’ He wants them to remember what they have done or failed to do? Jesus’ strategy works. The text is explicit here. It says, ‘they went away one by one.’ They stood together in violence as a mob. They depart as individuals, one by one, knowing that they are sinners.
This gospel asks us to consider do we participate in mob thinking? It can happen in a family, when a member of the family makes a mistake or is difficult to deal with or fails to meet other’s expectations, and the family says he or she is a black sheep and cuts the person off. Will we go along with that judgment? It can happen at school when someone ridicules another person because of the way he or she talks or dresses and says that this person is unworthy of our respect. Will we agree? It can happen in our friendships and social circles when people who think like us demean someone who is on welfare, an Arab or a Jew, or an immigrant. Will we add our voices to theirs? When the people around us begin to attack others of a different political persuasion, will we feed that fury until it erupts in hatred and violence?
In all of these situations, Jesus asks us to stop thinking with the mob. Instead, he asks us to stand alone before God, remembering what God has done for us and who God calls us to be. In that silence before the Lord, we will lose our desire to throw stones. In God’s presence it will become less likely that we judge, hate, and hurt. Alone before the God who loves us, our pent-up anger will fade. Then, the only prayer that will make any sense is this: “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.”