Ash Wednesday: Misery and Mercy
Sermon by the Revd Dr Brutus Green
Based on reading: John 8: 2-11
This is the Gospel of Christ, but it’s not the Gospel of John. It’s rare that Biblical scholarship is unanimous but you won’t find many commentators trying to defend it as original to John, no matter which century you turn to. The language is not Johanine, we hear of the Mount of Olives, and Jesus disputes with ‘the scribes and the pharisees’, unmentioned in John but common in the other Gospels; it awkwardly interrupts the flow of the text, which seamlessly flows around it, and it’s missing from almost all the earliest manuscripts.
Is it then discredited and to be ignored? Well, no. In fact, there are even more good reasons for paying careful attention to it. The style is very much like Luke’s Gospel and in some manuscripts it’s placed as Luke’s twenty-first chapter. The recording of Jesus in confrontation with religious authorities places it among the most credible accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching, and the attention to detail suggests an eye witness account. But actually what stands most to its credit is just how surprising it is. The suggestion of Christ’s mercy cutting through such an obvious case of caught-red-handed, of its summary dismissal of human justice in what looks clear cut, is a threat to all authority. That it’s a woman, someone who’s little more than property, with no legal voice, strengthens it further. Female sexuality was firmly under the thumb, at the disposal of men. This story liberates the woman. It’s a dangerous text.
And for the emerging church with its many disciplinary issues, which we regularly hear about in Paul’s letters, it’s a text that gets a little too close to the bone. How will it be read? How will we maintain the ethics and credibility of our new faith if the hoi polloi get wind that the mercy of Christ may exceed all the law, the teaching and authority of men? So we have to thank the scribe who sneaks it in here, because in it we have a record of one of the most striking, comforting and challenging teachings of Jesus.
But what is going on here? We’re told first of all that this woman is caught actually ‘in the act of adultery’ — in flagrante delicto. Presumably we can imagine then she is somewhat immodestly dressed, caught no doubt somewhat off guard, and her public humiliation is only a foretaste of the hoped for violence.
And the verdict is already given. When you heard this story, as you probably have done many times before, did you assume she was guilty? Did the marvellous moral that Christ acquits even the most heinous sin, obscure the fact that no evidence is given, that this is a lynching. Did you also - without thought - pass judgement on the humiliated woman? And there are gaps. Where is the man? After all it takes two to tango - adultery is a team game.
As it stands with no mention of the offending man at all, it's suggestive of either a set up of some sort, or worse of a much darker violence heaped again upon this woman. This terrible use of the girl is even more evident as their actual goal is to trap Jesus. Either he condones circumventing Roman law and punishes her according to Jewish Law, blasting his undeniable popular reputation for liberalism and kindness; or in the very temple itself he denies what the Jewish Law demands.
There’s a suggestion here of Jesus’ ironic parodying of man’s justice. He looks away, writing in the dust, as in a Roman court the accusation would have been written impartially in the ledger; with his finger twice, perhaps suggesting the Law of Moses, written on the two tablets of the Ten Commandments. Is he positioning himself as the new law giver? Is he suggesting that human law is dust? Vanity blowing on the wind? Is it simply time wasting, or an eye witness account of one of Jesus’ tics? Is he overcome with emotion, unable to look upon either the murdering crowd or the exposed humiliation of the woman?
We have in his riddling response — that the guiltless should throw the first stone — perhaps a suggestion of an answer, for he immediately begins his writing in the sand again. He doesn’t look up. He doesn’t attempt confrontation. There’s something impartial in the action, which faces human judgement and says, yes, yes, but who are you to demand punishment? In the heat of conflict he holds up a mirror to the conscience of the would-be-murderers.
The episode is a criticism of all occasions of so-called human justice — of every time we’ve been involved, as an individual, as a community, as a nation, where violence is committed in the name of justice. This isn’t to dismiss the importance, the necessity, of human justice, but it shows that it’s ugly, that everyone’s diminished by it, and that we must bear its burden every time it’s deployed.
At the end the woman and Jesus are left alone, the oldest — the wisest or the most burdened — having left first. Jesus and the woman. As St Augustine says ‘relicti sunt duo miseria et misericordia’ — there are left the two — misery and mercy: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
This story has always moved me — it’s an emotionally involving story. The question to ask though is — who are you identifying with here? As you heard it, your subconscious may have been running with a modern day parallel in thinking of the atrocities that happen to women still today,
still all the time. You may have seen in the angry mob an angry mob in Yemen or India. Perhaps you’re thinking of Harvey Weinstein, “Me too” and the exposure of exploitation in Hollywood, Parliament and elsewhere. You probably identified first of all then with the woman. Your own secret faults may also have come to mind, perhaps regrets, perhaps residual guilt of damage done or secret shame.
One of the most profound spiritual experiences I’ve ever had, though, occurred to me when I realised that although I did empathize with the woman I also strongly identified with the crowd of men. Because actually we all enjoy a bit of rough justice. There’s a part of us not unhappy to see another suffer, lose, fall behind; the whisper of justice in your head as someone you don’t like trips up, the thrill of schadenfreude as Richard Dawkins failed to remember the full title of On The Origin of Species. Executions have long been a mainstay of popular entertainment, and little has changed in the bullying morality of the press and social media.
But this was not my spiritual experience. I’m aware of at least some of my shortcomings and while ill-equipped to always deal with them, I’m not so proud as to deny them. But what I noticed was that the rage of the crowd with which I identified was mostly directed at myself. Because all of us are angry with ourselves — rock in hand angry with ourselves. Most of us at some point judge ourselves and find what we see wanting. Failed ambitions, disappointing relationships, not what we expected when we expected, not as good, clever, successful, pretty as the guy — or girl — over there. Part of it’s pride, part vanity and envy; part of it frustration, part guilt, part unreasonable expectations. And we can find each of these looming over the prone body of our vulnerable soul.
Jesus does not claim the woman hasn’t sinned. He tells her not to sin again. She isn’t left necessarily happy or even relieved. She's left in a state of repentance thankful for mercy. Like the crowd, like us, she has sinned — not necessarily adultery, but we all fall short.
Like the men who excised this story from some of the early manuscripts because it was too threatening, too permissive, and in doing so continued the violence of the crowd to this woman. Like them, like the woman, we all live in glass houses. But our aim for Lent is to be like her, to find ourselves alongside Jesus, and to one by one let the jeering crowd of clamouring anger depart from us, one by one, frustration, disappointment, guilt, vanity, pride.
Lent is a time for giving things up. So this year perhaps you could: Give up self-righteousness. Give up self-judgement. Give up self-hatred. Give up anger. Give up resentment. Give up bitterness. Watch them walk away, starting with the eldest. ‘Relicti sunt duo miseria et misericordia:’ ‘There were left, the two, misery and mercy’
Left with Jesus you will find no one left to condemn you. ‘Go, and do not sin again.’ Amen.