After the Parish Fete ended tonight, I attended (still dusty and tired from my duties in the carpark) the Vigil Mass for the 5th Sunday in Lent.
The Gospel was, of course, that of “The Woman Caught In Adultery” from John 8. It is a fascinating story, and full of Johannine dramatic tension (including his characteristic way of reducing the essential drama to a dialogue between Jesus and only one other person in the final verses). But surely it loses some of its impact because we today hear of an act of adultery and say to ourselves “STONING? for ADULTERY? How unjust! Of course Jesus was right not to condemn her.” We are on Jesus’ side because we don’t think (contrary to ancient Judaism and modern Islam) that adultery is such a serious or shameful crime that the death penalty should be applied.
An example is the “Reflection” that appeared in the parish bulletin. All I know of the source of this reflection is that at the bottom it said “(c) GIA”. (Here is the full “Reflection” published on the website of another Australian parish.) It is obviously American in its origin. What got me is this rather self-congratulatory paragraph:
Some of you may remember a while back when the news media ran a picture of a woman accused of adultery buried up to her neck, exposing her face and head for a pummeling with rocks. It was the first time many of us existentially understood what it meant to be ‘stoned to death’. We have nothing like that in our culture.
I don’t remember the photograph – although obviously it appeared in the US press. Obvious too was the fact that this stemmed from somewhere in the world where a strict and merciless Sharia law is applied. But do we really “have nothing like that in our culture”?
Run with me on this – and don’t stone me for thinking it. Just try this out for how it might revitalise the story for us.
The lawyers and the reporters brought a priest who had been caught in child abuse; and making him stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this priest of yours was caught in the very act of committing abuse. Now our law and society commands us to stone such man. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at him.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.”
Now, I know that adultery differs greatly from sexual abuse against minors in the major respect that we can generally assume the willingness of the adulterers, whereas child sexual abuse is an horrendous crime against the dignity and will and innocence of the victim. So there is not a strict parallel here.
But ask yourselves this: Do we really “have nothing like that in our culture”? How would you write the ending of this story if the accused in the story was a priest caught in child abuse and not a woman caught in adultery?
I am one of those who was, by Jesus statement “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” is must ask myself whether I can maintain my self-righteous indignation and whether it is possible to show mercy to those whom our society truly (and perhaps rightly) regards as “the chief of sinners”.
For the fact is that Jesus’ terrible and appalling mercy has been shown to me also.