by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” John 8, 1-11
We all have some familiarity with the psychology underlying the phenomena of things like lynchings and mob-violence. We are also aware of executions carried out by people blinded to justice because of their attachment to a fundamentalist attachment to law. We have seen how unbridled emotion takes over and reason and logic become casualties. Joan of Arc was burned at the stake when a group of Church leaders, riding on high emotion, labelled her as a heretic and a witch and handed her over for execution to English civil authorities. We have seen the psychology of mob-violence operating in fairly recent times in the death and mayhem perpetrated by supporters of President Trump when they stormed the Capitol building in Washington. We have also seen high emotion driving violent demonstrations by anti-vaxxers across the United Kingdom (Alpha Men Assemble), and in places like Melbourne, and Alabama.
Today’s gospel-reading describes Jesus in conflict with a group of Jewish men hell-bent on lynching a woman whom they allegedly caught in the act of adultery. Strangely, they make no mention of her male partner. Hypocritically, they stood in front of Jesus demanding that he agree to their adherence to the letter of the law which allowed for the stoning to death of the woman they had dragged before him. By pressuring Jesus to confirm their judgement of the woman, they were also putting him on trial.
In reality, like all people who consciously or unconsciously are intent on displaying their power and dedication to law, these men were really revealing their own insecurity. We see it again and again in those who seek to control through command, threat and direction, the behaviour of those in their care. They merely demonstrate just how insecure they really are themselves.
Worthy of note is the fact that those who brought the woman to Jesus for confirmation of their decision to stone her had already made their plans to trap Jesus. They knew well what the Mosaic Law clearly stated in Leviticus: “If a man commits adultery with his neighbour’s wife, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (Leviticus 20, 10). It is repeated in Deuteronomy: “If a man is discovered having relations with a woman who is married to another, both the man and the woman with whom he has had relations shall die” (Deuteronomy 22, 22). Although Jewish law was clear that both parties should die, there was no clause stating that they be executed at the same time and in the same manner. That might explain why the group confronting Jesus humiliated only the woman in front of him. What’s more, there was a parallel Roman law operating in Judea at the time of Jesus. To begin with, it forbade Jewish authorities from carrying out the death sentence. Moreover, it stipulated that an adulteress could be executed only if the offending man was also executed. So, while according to Jewish law the woman’s execution was entirely justified and even required, according to Roman law, her execution was forbidden unless the guilty man was also executed. Perhaps those challenging Jesus were hoping that Jesus might opt for the Roman law, and get trapped into sparing the offending man, thereby preventing the Jewish law from running its course. If he opted for the Jewish law, the woman could be stoned to death (with Roman approval) and her accusers might conveniently forget to bring the man to justice. Jesus confounded the woman’s accusers by choosing a third way – the way of mercy, compassion and forgiveness. At the same time, he challenged the self-appointed executioners by confronting them with their personal sinfulness: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” The group of men hell-bent on scapegoating the poor woman, with their emotions whipped up to fever pitch, would simply have been incapable of recognising that their show of forcefulness and self-righteousness was masking their insecurity.
As for the woman, we can only guess at what motivated her behaviour. Had she gone in search of affection or sexual gratification? Had she been forced to sell her body in order to survive? Whatever her motivation, there was no chance that her actions would have brought her lasting satisfaction or peace of mind and heart. Relationships without commitment are destined to destroy those who engage in them. In refusing to condemn her, Jesus opened for her an opportunity to move toward rehabilitation. In contrast, the men who one by one had drifted away ran the risk of being poisoned by their totally frustrated thirst for vengeance.
This confrontation between Jesus and the group of men demanding vengeance calls to mind Jesus’ appeal to all who would be his disciples to focus on the way of compassion: “Be compassionate, as your Father is compassionate. Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Pardon, and you shall be pardoned” (Luke 6, 36-37). That’s a message for all of us to heed. If we could look calmly at ourselves when we experience the urge to get even with those who offend us or who upset our sense of superiority and self-righteousness, we just might come to appreciate that insisting on vengeance and revenge poisons our spirit and embitters our capacity to relate to, or see the goodness in, others. If we can’t see that in ourselves, we have only to read our newspapers or listen to radio journalists who conduct talk-back programs and incite their listeners to condemn those whom the law has seemingly dealt with too leniently. The shock-jocks and the virulently critical journalists end up poisoning themselves. Is there any international conflict in our world that is not driven by leaders who cannot contain their desire to get even or to exact revenge on those they say have offended them or reneged on an agreement? Deep down, we know that the desire for revenge poisons the human spirit.
Embedded in this gospel-reading is an invitation to us all to look at ourselves in the mirror that Jesus held up to the would-be lynching mob. It surely is a mirror for us to reflect on the motives that drive us to make cutting remarks to those with whom we live and work, to say things that suggest that we see ourselves as superior to others. Maybe our prayer this week might be that we grow in our readiness to forgive, to work at mending any of our relationships that have become broken, and to find within ourselves a determination to refrain from judging and criticising those around us. There’ll be no peace in our world until there is peace in our hearts.