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From Wronged to Wrong
Fr  Simon Tibbs, Lent 5, 2013

Lent 5: John 8:2-11

The scene described in todayís Gospel is one of high tension and high emotion. The scribes and Pharisees have apprehended a woman in the act of adultery, something for which the Hebrew Bible allowed the death penalty, where there were witnesses to the crime. For the death penalty to be applied seems to have been unusual, perhaps because in the ordinary course of events, there would not usually be any such witnesses. In this instance, we can assume that other people had actually seen the couple in the act of love, or Jesus would have had straight-forward grounds for getting the woman off.

Itís a bit hard to reconstruct the events leading up to the scene described. The fact that the woman has been brought to the Temple early in the morning as a test for Jesus may suggest a degree of contrivance and forward-planning on the part of Jesusís opponents, or perhaps they have come there straight from the scene of the crime. Either way, a crowd seems to have gathered, perhaps including, but not limited to, those who actually saw the act of adultery. Perhaps the witnesses have alerted the scribes and Pharisees, the legal experts, and they have got the case together, with others simply tagging along.

I imagine an angry mob, as it were, baying for blood, their adrenalin flowing as they seek the punishment for a crime whose horror all right-thinking people can agree upon.

Itís quite hard for us to think our way into the minds of the mob on this occasion. Our own society, after all, has a more flexible, case-by-case approach to matters of sex. Perhaps, we might think to ourselves, the woman was unhappily married and had found fulfilment with a new partner. Perhaps she had grounds for what she did in her husbandís long absence, or perhaps he was violent towards her and any children in the family. Any number of factors might soften our judgement of the womanís conduct.

We need to remember that the mob in the story is acting according to the most basic norms of that society, norms that are in effect beyond debate. Itís helpful to think of possible parallels for us in our very different society, with its very different instincts about matters of morality. What crimes can we think of that are so hideous that we would feel some sympathy if a group of vigilantes  were to set about administering their own rough justice. A terrorist, perhaps, caught in the act of trying to plant a bomb on a bus? A drug dealer who derives his livelihood from preying on the desperation of societyís most miserable? A human trafficker? A paedophile? In connection with the latter, the ugly scenes on the Paulsgrove Estate in Portsmouth just over a decade ago spring to mind, when people got together to hound out of their community convicted sex-offenders whose names had been publicised as a result of Sarahís Law. Some innocents were caught up in the violence that erupted, but the emotions that spurred on the group that called themselves ĎResidents Against Paedophilesí were ones that many people up and down the country could understand.

We havenít really done our work of interpreting the story for our own lives if we stop short of feeling some sympathy for the crowd. For many of us, adultery doesnít really make our blood boil the way it would have done for the scribes. So what really gets us worked up? These are perhaps the crimes we should hold in mind as we attempt to put ourselves into the situation.

A common feature of Jesusís clashes with his opponents is his refusal to answer a straight question. Rather, his responses when challenged by hostile enquirers tends to expose the inner disposition that lies behind the question.

Todayís story is not exception. Pressed for a judgment on adultery, Jesus plays for time. Rather than rushing to pronounce on the case in hand, he writes in the dust, an act that must have given the impression of strange self-absorption and disregard of othersí feelings. When he does speak, he offers a judgement, not on adultery, but on judgement itself.

Jesusís message in this story is a subtle one. A man of his time, there is no reason to think he was radically soft on sexual offenders. 

The point of the story is more to do with what we owe each other as human beings when we come to judge another person.

Before accusing another, or rehearsing the wrongs we have suffered at their hands to a third party, we need our moment of withdrawal, a moment in which we take a few deep breaths, and read the writing in the dust. What we read there is the accusation against us. It could be anything - the name of a person we have harmed, a habit, a character trait, a certain period in our lives Ė something that shows us the truth about ourselves.

God in Christ has met us where we are. What he writes in the dust he writes for our comfort in the moment of our anger. That writing reflects deep knowledge. Deep knowledge, and deep love. As we say in the beautiful old prayer, he is the one before whom no hearts are closed before him, and no secrets hidden. No desire of ours is unknown to him. Nothing is shocking, nothing shameful, nothing unsayable. To the degree he knows the worst of us, to that same degree he loves us.

He asks only that, as he has looked with pity on us, so we have pity on others, and particularly on those to whom we are inclined to feel superior. That is the contract between us. We come to his altar naked, and we bring to our judgement of others a sense of our own weakness.

Jesus was someone who knew about angry mobs. He suffered at their hands on various occasions, and an angry mob was responsible for his death. In our Holy Week liturgy, we take the part of the mob in recognition that the impulse to denigrate others and make them a scape-goat is one that we all share. For most of us, the mob-instinct comes out in our conversation, rather than in actual violence. The violence is there, make no mistake, weíre just too polite to clock anyone over the head.

Into the sorry mess of human anger and resentment, in which self-righteous mobs form all too easily, and can be hard to break up, Christ has brought in a new note of generosity. The knowledge of our own sinfulness is actually good news, Gospel, to use the technical term, if it helps us put a more generous construction on other peopleís behaviour, and practice self-control when it comes to rehearsing their misdeeds to others. 

Many of us cling for dear life to the sense of being wronged. Christís word to us, the word he writes before us in the dust of our lives, moves us on from resentment and anger to a more advanced sense of fellow-feeling, even with the worst of sinners. Itís the movement from wronged to wrong, and strangely, often comes as quite a relief. Righteous anger, however high we may get when we are expressing it, is ultimately draining.

Jesus humiliated the mob by confronting them with their own sinfulness. I expect they left the scene with their tails between their legs. But I hope they were feeling happier Ė lighter - by the time they got home, having started to make the transition, fundamental to the spiritual life, from wronged to wrong.

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