One of the ostensible accomplishments of civilization is supposed to be channeling conflict. So, wherever we are on the continuum of reactions to last Sunday’s Oscars, in general we believe inter-personal disputes and accusations are preferably dealt with in the calm of the courtroom rather than through the violence of individuals or mobs, one reason why we rightly celebrate the final passage last week (after much too long a delay) of an anti-lynching law. From the way the story is told in today’s Gospel, however, Jesus was being asked to take sides in a situation that seems more like a mob scene, a 1st-century lynching of sorts, than the calm of a courtroom.
In fact, the specific image that immediately comes to my mind is more like what went on in certain places at the end of World War II, when mobs of recently liberated people took revenge on those who had collaborated with the occupiers – for example, women who had gotten romantically involved with German soldiers. (In fact, one biblically themed novel I remember reading many years ago actually replayed this scene that way, with a Jewish woman who’d gotten involved with a Roman.) As sometimes happens in such situations, it may have been business rivalries and other old scores that were being settled in the guise of post-war revenge.
Whatever was going on here, the mob’s motives for trying to involve Jesus appear unclear and certainly seem suspect, an attempt to trap Jesus in some way. Was the mob trying to get Jesus to render a judgment without first giving the accused the hearing the Law entitled her to? Things like that happen, of course, all too often in human relations, especially in our scandal-driven news world and social media. Had Jesus gone along with that, had he judged her case without the hearing that the Law entitled her to have, then presumably Jesus would have exposed himself in the process as something less than the prophet he was purported to be.
Of course, Jesus saw through all of this. Instead of playing the mob’s game, he himself cleverly took control of the situation. First, he silently wrote on the ground with his finger, the only known instance of Jesus ever writing anything at all! And what better way to silence problem people than to ignore them? What is more annoying to someone than deliberately doing something else when he or she (or, in this case, they) are demanding your undivided attention? Anyone who has ever had to wait forever for someone else’s answer to a question, or who has ever been kept endlessly “on hold” (even worse with loud obnoxious music in the background) will recognize just what power Jesus was claiming in this situation!
Then, when Jesus finally did speak, he turned the case upside down, forcing the mob to judge themselves instead –, to examine their own lives and their own hearts, to see themselves as God sees them. The dramatic result: they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. As Saint Augustine famously summarized the silent drama of the scene: only two were left, miseria et misericordia, misery and mercy.
Finally, the silence ended. Jesus said to her: “Go, and from now on do not sin any more.” Whatever words Jesus wrote in the dirt, he was preparing the ground for forgiveness. Like last week’s parable of a father and his sons, this story is a dramatic demonstration of God’s distinctive way of dealing with us – and of what God really wants and expects from us in return.
When we honestly examine ourselves without excuses or evasions, when we look directly into our own lives and the depths of our own hearts, and so begin to see ourselves as God sees us, as sinners truly forgiven and invited to reconciliation, then out of that overflowing experience of forgiveness received real reconciliation with one another becomes an authentic possibility – and, more than a possibility, an imperative.
Homily for the 5th Sunday of Lent, Saint Paul the Apostle Church, New York, April 3, 2022.
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