FOR 13 MARCH 2016
John 8:1-11 (Fifth Sunday of Lent)
Today we are presented with what I consider one of the defining moments in the public ministry of our Lord. A woman caught in the act of adultery is dragged into the temple square to stand in shame and in full view of a blood-thirsty mob. She stands alone because her presumably equally culpable accomplice is conspicuously missing.
It’s a disturbingly familiar scene: To this day, such tragic injustice continues to be inflicted on women in different parts of the world. Unfortunately, while it takes two to tango, it only takes one when you want to condemn the dance–and it’s usually not the man you haul to the public stoning.
Meanwhile, surely for our Lord, that woman and that mob make a most heartbreaking and heartless scene: Heartbreaking because he can only imagine the pain and the shame of the woman. Heartless because the mob and their leaders aren’t really even all that interested in the Law or morality; they’ve set up this whole scenario–never mind if they use this woman and end her life–just to trap Jesus. It’s what they hope will be a no-win situation for him: He’s damned if he follows the Law of Moses and approves the woman’s execution, and just as damned if he disapproves it but violates the Law.
The woman’s heartbrokenness and the mob’s heartlessness: One can’t help but feel simultaneously sad and furious. There are simply no words. Which is probably why our Lord, momentarily speechless, responds by doing the most unexpected of things: He bends down and writes on the ground with his finger–the only time, as far as I can recall, that our Lord is reported to do any writing in the Gospels.
What is he writing? Who knows? Biblical scholars, distinguished more by their overactive imagination and sense of humor than their scholarship, have theorized that Jesus may have been listing down either the sins of those present–or worse, the names of the woman’s other clients, present company included. We’ll never really know.
What is he thinking? Again, we’ll never know; we can only guess. So here’s my guess: Among the many thoughts surely racing through his mind that moment, I wonder if our Lord may have thought of one other woman who–only by the grace of God and the mercy of her fiancé–has been spared from a similarly cruel execution.
Is it possible that looking at this woman standing before him, Jesus may have remembered his own mother Mary and the fate she would have suffered had she been publicly–albeit wrongly–accused of the same sin? There is evidence that their neighbors in their village in Nazareth have always known that Mary’s son is not Joseph’s. Why else, after all, would they refer to Jesus as “the son of Mary” as they’ve done that first time he preached in their synagogue instead of the more customary label that identifies him as Joseph’s son?
Is it possible that seeing his own mother in this woman caught in adultery called for an even greater compassion in our Lord than usual?
We know the rest of the story. Jesus, as usual, comes up with a response that, to use an inappropriate cliche, kills two birds with one stone: He saves the woman’s life without having to violate the Law of Moses. And he does this by giving the scribes and Pharisees and their mob a potent dose of their own medicine: shame.
And it works. Jesus’ metaphorical stone is the only one cast that day. The mob walks away, as does the woman, her life spared, her sins mercifully forgiven.
Reflecting on this Gospel and reading between its lines, I think I’ve stumbled upon what could be a theory of divine mercy. To appreciate divine mercy, we need only to gaze at Jesus, who is, as Pope Francis says, the “Face of God’s mercy.” Jesus is our model and mentor for mercy. So what does he teach us about the Father’s mercy today?
He teaches us that mercy happens only when we manage to break through the barriers that separate us from one another. In today’s Gospel story, Jesus’ mercy wells up because in that woman, someone he has never met before, he sees not a stranger, but a kin; not an “other,” but a brother–or more appropriately in this case, a sister, perhaps his mother.
The secret to mercy and compassion, as it turns out, is connection. To recognize the fundamental but hidden–and too-often forgotten–connection between you and me, between us and them, whatever distinctions we may be wont to use, whether riches, race, religion, region, etc. Our capacity for mercy seems to be defined–and limited–by our capacity for empathy. Only when we can stand in the shoes of strangers, even those we may consider the worst of strangers, and actually see in them our neighbor, our sister, brother, even ourselves–only then can we feel greater compassion, act more mercifully, and love more genuinely.
So, what we really need to do is not to build walls or towers, as the most popular–but also most idiotic–sound bites these days would have us believe. What we need to do is to follow God’s formula for mercy: to break down barriers the way our Lord has done in his life and most especially in his death.
I think this is the secret to understanding God’s unapologetically lavish and scandalously indiscriminate mercy. Compared to our incredibly big and sensitive toes, God has amazingly small feet: He can readily put Himself in our shoes. When He sees us, He doesn’t just see our sins and weaknesses and wickedness. He sees something else and something more. We are constantly being warned to beware of wolves in sheep’s clothing. God works differently; He sees differently: He sees the lost sheep hiding underneath the wolves’ clothing. And His Shepherd’s heart brims over with love and mercy and aches to bring us back to the fold.
As exemplified by our Lord Jesus, our model and mentor for mercy, God not only walks with us, but insists on walking with us in our shoes. We ought to do the same with one another, especially with those we know the least and those we love the least. The secret to mercy is keeping our feet small. Why? The better to put ourselves in other people’s shoes.
This homily first appeared in pinsoflight.net