Fifth Sunday in Lent, Year C
3 April 2022
If you look at your Bibles you will notice that our Gospel reading is bracketed and there will likely be a footnote indicating that this passage is not found in the earliest manuscripts and appears to have been added later. It did, however, find it’s way into the Bible which is a good enough reason to read it. Besides, there are ancient references to the story in an ancient church order called the Didascalia Apostolorum and other texts. In the text just named we find the following entry,
“But if you do not receive him who repents, because you are without mercy, you shall sin against the Lord God. For you do not obey our Saviour and our God, to do even as He did with her who had sinned, whom the elders placed before Him, and leaving the judgment in His hands, and departed. But He, the searcher of hearts, asked her and said to her: “Have the elders condemned you, my daughter?” She said to him: “Nay Lord.” And He said unto her: “Go, neither do I condemn you.” In this then let our Saviour and King and God, be to you a standard, O bishops, and imitate Him.”1
With this out of the way, let us begin.
The pastors’ study conference will be held in June and like last year the registration fee is waved for indigenous, black, and clergy of colour. The communication from the Synod states that this is done recognizing our need for reconciled relationships because these people ‘bear the largest burden of systemic racism in our synod. This is a small action in the spirit of reparation in our work towards becoming an anti-racist synod.’2
I had e-mailed the planning committee, suggesting that while the goal is commendable, it misses its target as it is not clergy which pay the registration fee but congregations and most of our congregations are predominantly white. What I did not say and should have said, is that such performative action presumes to do justice when in fact it is not and by giving the appearance of doing justice it may be completely counterproductive in that it would free us from having a conversation not only about racism in general but also what all of us and the church should do about it. Because it seems that we are doing something about it when we are not. But we live in a time when performative justice is more important than actually doing justice and the church is not immune to this. Further, what adds to the problem is that this is an expression of our increasingly polarized society where the mere questioning of an act done in the name of justice is perceived to constitute an injustice.
It is the increasing polarization of our society that I see mirrored in our passage from John. There are the righteous who condemn her they consider unrighteous and who are not interested in what the unrighteous have to say for themselves because we already know that they are wrong. And this works not only on what used the be called the left of the political spectrum but on the right just the same. We are no longer interested in the views of those who are different from us because we are not interested in them. Period.
I remember my left-leaning high school teachers lamenting that in the eighties the discussion of opposing viewpoints had denigrated to slogans as opposed to the in-depth discussions they had engaged in in the sixties and early seventies. Now we live in a time when we are not even interested in our enemies, in those with differing views, except that we want to dismiss them. Needless to say that this is a long way from loving our enemies.
Now, it is clear in the story that the woman has sinned and it is an enigma that those who bring her to Jesus have not already carried out the stoning (as outlined in Deuteronomy 17:2-5), except, as we are told that they did this to test Jesus. And so she is made a spectacle of.
It is important to state that the woman has sinned not because her partner in the act is missing, but because what we do matters, not only for our private lives but it matters for the community in which we live.
And I think for us who are ever more divided and inclined to dismiss each other, today’s Gospel offers helpful advice.
If we want to repair the polarization among us it does not help to shrug and say, “We’re all sinners,” in a way that it would relativize our sin, as if it didn’t matter. Jesus does not shrug and say ‘whatever’. Jesus says to the woman, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” (v.11)
But he reminds those who with glee had brought her before him that they too are sinners. And while the story does not name their sins, their sins are the reason for their retreat.
Lent as a penitential season should not lessen our zeal for justice but it should lead to honest self-examination that makes it possible for me to speak with my enemy without condemning him or her, and to see my enemy not only as the sin or ignorance I perceive in them but as a child of God.
These are not easy conversations, in part because our world is in trouble and the trouble is not limited to Russia and Ukraine. But the willingness to speak with my enemy is the only way forward and everything else is an avoidance of our social responsibility, which is the avoidance of living as a disciple of Jesus.
If we begin our relationships with one another with the condemnation of each other, instead the respect all people deserve, for they are created in the image of God, accompanied by the naming of injustices, we make new beginnings impossible. What Jesus offers in this episode is not the dismissal of sin but the possibility of a new beginning and of new relationships. That is grace. It is grace given to us, and it is grace expected of us.
1 Tommy Wasserman: Does the Woman Caught in Adultery Belong in the Bible?. Gerard Sloyan writes, “The tale clearly resembles the story of Susannah and the elders, a Greek addition to the Book of Daniel (chapter 13 in LXX; Daniel and Susannah of the Second Canon, capt. 1). Jesus, like the young Daniel, suspecting hypocrisy, will have “no part in the death [RSV ‘the blood] of this woman (Dan 13:46; Dan and Sus., 1:46).” Gerard Sloyan, John, Interpretation, Atlanta Ga: 1988 John Knox Press, page 95