We all know the story of the woman taken in adultery (John 8: 1-11). The adulteress is discovered, we are given to believe, in flagrante delecto, and the scribes and Pharisees thereupon haul her before Jesus and demand to know whether she should be put to death (as stipulated in Leviticus 20:10). Jesus extemporizes by stooping down and tracing figures in the dust. When at last he stands, he famously answers them by saying: “he that is without sin among you, let him cast the first stone.”
I cannot begin to count the number of sermons and homilies I have heard that took this last line for their text. I don’t doubt that some of these exhortations were necessary, since hypocritical casting of stones can be a bit of a problem for humans, as indeed it was among the scribes and Pharisees of Judea around 31 A.D. But against the very large number of sermons and homilies that reproved “casting the first stone,” I must set the exceedingly small number I have heard that reproved, you know, adultery.
The imbalance is remarkable, especially when one considers that Christians don’t actually stone adulterers, or nowadays even shame them.
Adultery, on the other hand, still goes on strong.
Walking to mass yesterday, an adulterer whizzed by on his bicycle, and I gave him a cheerful wave and hello. And there were, I might add, one or two egg-sized stones ready to hand.
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The story of the woman taken is adultery is a difficult story, particularly in light of the teachings that we find in the remainder of John 8. I take the general point of the chapter to be Christological rather than moral, and the story of the woman taken in adultery as, therefore, primarily an illustration of Christ’s authority before the Law. This doesn’t mean that it isn’t also a warning against self-righteous hypocrisy, or that such warnings are never necessary; but I have come to believe that this story, as most commonly interpreted, is a stone in the hand of the scribes and Pharisees!
After all, what could be more exquisitely pharisaical than casting the first stone at stone-throwers? Or even people you have only accused of hankering to throw stones—even when they are not tossing egg-sized stones in their hands, and are not taking the range of some poor woman taken in adultery, and are not enthusiasts for Leviticus 20:10.
What could be better than a pharisaical stoning of laymen who haven’t the moral conviction to raise an eyebrow, much less to throw a stone? And for these modern Pharisees who are just itching to shove their phylactery in your face, the story of the woman taken in adultery is the egg-sized stone most ready to hand.
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These thoughts ran through my head as I walked home from mass yesterday. Our text was not, as it happens, the story of the woman taken in adultery, but rather the even more famous parable of the seeds that were sewn on several sorts of ground. Our deacon focused on the ground that was stony, and in which, you will recall, the seeds sprout but do not prosper. This is normally understood as a metaphor of religious enthusiasm that blazes for a day, but then dies in the face of hardship.
This was not the interpretation advanced by our deacon. He suggested that we instead see the stony ground as a metaphor of hard-heartedness, and more particularly hard-heartedness with respect to the plight of “migrants” and “the poor.”
At this suggestion, I must confess that the stones began to rumble in my chest.
The plight of “migrants” and “the poor” is complex, and not something about which we should be hard-hearted, but hard-heartedness did not cause this plight and even greater tender-heartedness will not solve it (if there is, indeed, a solution). And note that I say even greater tender-heartedness, since most of the people our deacon was pelting with his pharisaical stones are already pretty darned tender-hearted.
By this I mean that they already have a very lively sense of what they owe to people who are less fortunate than they, a sense that is kept lively by those stones that keep showering down from the pulpit.
What I would like to hear—let’s say once every ten years or so—would be a homily about what people less fortunate than I owe to people like me. What do “the poor,” for instance, owe to those who pay their medical bills? What do “migrants” owe to those who pay their children’s tuition? Are such people under any obligation to Christian charity, or does being “poor” and a “migrant” get them off the hook? Are they in a class that is somehow exempt from the command to “live for others?”
Judging from their behavior, it cannot be that they do not need to be reminded!
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Not long ago we had a homily from our other deacon on “a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s work,” attention being exclusively devoted to the fairness of the pay. This struck me as odd (well, not really) since the pews no doubt held far more workers than employers. You can’t stint a man’s pay if you pay no man, but everyone who works can shirk. And not a few do!
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When Peter says that “God is no respecter of persons” (Acts 10:34), he means that God is not impressed by social status: by crowns, or titles, or the passport one carries (or neglects to carry).* That is why Peter goes on to say that, “in every nation,” God respects only the man “that feareth him and worketh righteousness.”
This means he doesn’t care who you are, but only what you do!
Being no respecter of persons certainly means no respecter of high social status. God doesn’t care who is in Who’s Who. But this is not all that it means. It also means no respecter of low or marginal social status. It means, for instance, facing up to the fact that a great many bums are bums (although some, of course, are not)!
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Our modern Pharisee is, needless to say, an ardent respecter of persons, although the persons he respects are different than before. Migrants! The poor! Workers! In the presence of these worthies (or, rather, the idea of these worthies), he becomes a fawning sycophant. And if you decline to join him, he has laid in a good supply of egg-sized stones.
*) That God does not care what passport a man carries does not imply that you should do the same. Unless, of course, you believe that you are God!