Jesus is sitting in the Temple area teaching when a women caught in adultery is brought to him to be stoned for her sins. Looking at the crowd Jesus says, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” There is silence. Suddenly from the back of the crowd a rock comes hurling through and hits the woman on the head. Jesus looks up and says, “Mom, do you mind? I’m trying to make a point here.”
You’ve probably heard that one before. I like that joke because its humor is in that it shakes up what is a very familiar story to us about the woman caught in adultery. And, shaking things up is I think, exactly what Jesus intended by the way he acted in that encounter. It is one of those Biblical paradoxes where the Godly response is very different from the typical human response. It is reminiscent of the line in Scripture that reminds us that the “wisdom of God is foolishness to humans.” This was also a key insight of St. Francis of Assisi who realized that to follow the Gospel was to be completely different than what the world wants us to be. In fact, if God’s wisdom is what humans would view as foolish, then let’s all be fools. Francis was often called Christ’s fool. It is a very Franciscan way of following our Christian calling. So, the next time you think or say, “Fr. Tom is such a fool,” just remember, I’m only living out my vocation.
So, let’s look at this encounter that is meant to shake us up a bit. Jesus has this powerful encounter with the woman who was caught in adultery. Remember that by every objective standard of her day, this woman should have been put to death. Capital Crime? Capital Punishment, or the Death Penalty. The law on this was clear. From Leviticus, Chapter 20: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.” Very clear cut. Her actions were clearly in violation of the Law and anyone who was there would not have given this a second thought. Death was required and was even justified under the Law. So, why not just stone her and be done with it?
Instead, Jesus offers another option. “Let the first among you without sin cast the first stone.” And what happens? Suddenly these people see their connectedness as community – even though one in their midst had done wrong. With that simple statement, “Let the first among you without sin cast the first stone,” Jesus instantly brings a halt to a pattern of violence. Had they stoned her, these people would have just gone forward seeking out more wrong doers to bring to so-called justice. But, Jesus stops the cycle of violence that only leads to more violence and instead offers a way that leads to healing, reconciliation and peace. And isn’t that so much better than violence begetting violence – even when that violence seems justified?
And, let’s not underestimate the effects of Jesus actions. Although not named, tradition has often suggested that this woman was Mary Magdalene. Not only did she go on from this moment to be one of Jesus closest disciples, she is one of the most revered saints the world over, and was given the unbelievable honor of being the first at the tomb to proclaim that Jesus had risen. None of this would have happened if vengeance had taken over and she had been stoned to death. The realization is that the death penalty turns humans into false gods lording life and death over one another. More importantly, ”an eye for an eye” only serves to stop the healing, reconciling work that the True God wants to do in the lives of everyone.
Don’t forget either, another Mary likewise should have been killed for her actions. Mary, the mother of Jesus, said YES to God and became pregnant through the Holy Spirit. But in the eyes of her society, she was a pregnant woman out of wedlock – who likewise should have been put to death. Think of the consequences of that action. Were the Blessed Mother executed, there would have been no Jesus and no salvation.
So, what does this have to do with us? Well, this story from the Gospel presents us with a profound question – when will we begin to act as Jesus acts? When will we stop seeking vengeance, the cycle of violence, the culture of death, and begin to be people of reconciliation, healing and hope? And I say begin to act because looking around our world it is clear that as a society, whatever our words are, whatever is in our hearts – our actions are not in support of life. When teenagers in our community last week painted satanic symbols on two churches in town, how many people said, “Someone has to make these kids pay the price!” And how many said, “How can we reconcile this situation?” Luckily, Pastor Gail at St. John’s chose the path of reconciliation discovering that these young men are in very difficult home situations that contributed to this act of vandalism. Does that mean there is no consequence? No, they are being charged with their crime. They are doing restitution at the churches. But, instead of it ending there – Pastor Gail has engaged the situation; engaged these young men; forgiven them; accepted their remorse and sorrow; and is helping them to heal their lives. A much better solution for everyone involved. You know, whenever we are pointing a finger at someone else in judgment, there are three fingers pointing back at us.
Violence begets more violence. Jesus shows the people in today’s Gospel that they are interconnected. When something happens in our community – whether vandalism, or homelessness, or crime, or other types of social failures – we shouldn’t say, “They should do something about this. Why did they let themselves get that way? Why should I care about them?” The key insight into being Christian is this – there is no they; in the Christian community there is only us. A failure of one is a failure of all. When people are caught in cycles of violence and poverty, the response should be – how have we as a community failed these people? And what can we do to bring true and lasting change for their good and our common good?
Ghandi is often quoted as having said, “An eye for an eye eventually leaves everyone blind.” Jesus shows us that we can halt that cycle of violence and work for reconciliation – even in the worst cases. The woman caught in adultery turned her life around, And Jesus on the cross promised the criminal beside him, “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” The challenge for every Christian is to not just hear these words and say good for Jesus, but not for me; but to make Christ’s words, our words.
I am often aware of the fact that if this were the case, it should be a statistical impossibility that things like the Death Penalty, legal abortions, poverty, homelessness, etc. even exist. If we lived and voted our faith, given our overwhelming numbers in this country, all of these things should be long gone. These are all part of what it means to be Pro-Life.
Vengeance is fueled by anger. We are an angry people. But, anger only hurts us. Anger only ties up our own hearts in knots. Anger only steals our own peace. When will we stop being angry? It is so much easier to be forgiving. It is so much better to chose another way – which is what Jesus offers us. So, too these difficult and challenging situations in life Jesus might say, “Yes, I can understand your anger at this bad situation. You have every reason in the world to hold that grudge, to make them pay. But, don’t. How long is long enough to fill your heart with anger? Follow me. Let it go. Even when justified, offer love and forgiveness and reconciliation instead. You will see that it is not only healing for the one you forgive; it is healing for you as well.”
We must be the people who identify with and exemplify in our families and our community the saving, healing, reconciling actions of Jesus. Otherwise, we are just identifying with the Pharisees who seek to be more concerned with rules and punishment than with the love of God. Being Christian is not easy – it challenges us into places we weren’t prepared to go. But, when we trust in God’s actions, when we try things His way, the results are amazing. Just look at Mary Magdalene. Just look at the Blessed Mother.
The love of God is challenging, but it is not optional. Have you ever wondered where this Kingdom of God is that Jesus talks about? Why it hasn’t arrived yet? We need look no further than ourselves. We all have to be the people who, like Jesus, break the cycle and offer a different way. If it is only the priests preaching about these things and you leave here saying “that Fr. Tom is a fool” then the message will never take hold.
I’ve got news for you – I am a fool, a fool for Christ. The wisdom of Christ seems foolish to the world. But, I can also promise you that if you leave here today and offer the same reconciliation and healing to the angry places, situations and relationships in your life – change will happen. I challenge us all to do that. Let us all be a community of fools for Christ and ultimately a sign to the world of the Kingdom of God in our midst.
“Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.”
May God give you peace.