My Dear brothers and sisters in Christ
Grace and Peace to you in God, our Father and Jesus, our savior through the reconciling power of the Holy Spirit. A generation ago, it was quite common for certain derogatory terms to be used when describing people of certain races and ethnic backgrounds. In the course of the last 20 or 30 years there’s been a constant changing of terms in an effort to clarify what you can call a given racial or ethnic group. Oftentimes, this is called political correctness, a term which itself is decidedly not politically correct. Of course, the goal of all of this is to get people away from seeing others as the terrifyingly, different “other” in order to see how all of humanity is connected. The difficulty has been when it becomes obvious that there are legitimate differences in the way two different groups of people look and do things. In other words, regardless of how hard I concentrate on the similarities, the life-experiences I have and the morals and values I have imprinted on me are different than what someone growing up in the inner city of a major metropolitan area has. For instance, I often laugh at people who turn on car alarms in this town. Do we have a rash of car theft taking place in our tiny little town? When I look at the cars whose alarms are going off, I quite often see an Illinois license plate. I have to admit that my first thought is that the person must be from Chicago and hasn’t quite figured out that there’s no need for a car alarm in Ames.
There are other several areas of life where our experience and culture make it difficult to live next door to someone different. Quite often, we are then called to live out the moral precept of tolerance. I’m supposed to be tolerant of the guy who leaves his car alarm on because he was raised believing that’s essential and he’s supposed to be tolerant of me when I wear my priest clothes across campus on my way to an IRB meeting. Tolerance is, in some ways, a very useful attribute toward morally neutral things. A girl from small town Iowa who believes there are two types of music: country and western, comes to college in part to learn how to be tolerant of other people’s music and cultural traditions.
The problem I have with tolerance is when it comes to morals. We are told that we need to be tolerant of other people’s attitudes and behaviors when it comes to sex, money, and politics. And, ironically enough, this gospel is often used to substantiate this attitude of tolerance. I, however, don’t believe we are using it correctly when we do. Jesus is teaching in the Temple area. Let’s not forget that this is taking place in the Temple because I think it’s crucial. He is teaching his followers and probably reaching out to others to convert them. In the midst of this, the scribes and Pharisees bring him a guilty woman. They ask him to be the judge in her case. According to the law, she deserves to be killed because she was caught committing adultery. But, the Roman guards, who are watching from a high watch-tower close by, believe they are the only ones who are allowed to carry out the death sentence. In some way, Jesus can’t answer correctly. If he gives the scribes and Pharisees the order to kill her, he will likely be killed by the Romans for disobedience. If he says to turn her over to them, he would have basically been acknowledging to them that he is not the Messiah as they expect him to be who has come to overthrow human power and they would have killed him for blasphemy then and there.
In a move reminiscent of Solomon, Jesus says that they can kill her but the one of them who has no sin should be the one to cast the first stone. Of course, they all judge themselves as having sinned and walk away leaving her alone. But, this is not a lesson in tolerance. If it were, the story would have ended there with the lesson learned. What happened next is crucial. Jesus turns and asks where they have all gone and she says they all left. He then gives her something that the others didn’t even get: forgiveness. “Go and from now on do not sin anymore.” It’s a lesson in repentance and forgiveness not in merely allowing an adulteress to continue sinning and learning how to put up with her. It’s about getting her to reform her life and seek a life of holiness.
Let’s be honest, each of us could be in the same place as the woman for something that we’ve done. We all have events and actions in our lives that we keep hidden away because we are ashamed of them. We’ve learned to tolerate them because it’s easier to do that then to go and sin no more. It could be something as major as adultery or an addiction to pornography and masturbation or something as small as gossip and telling lies. Whatever it is, we should feel jolted today by Jesus to reconcile ourselves to the church and go and sin no more.