Friday, March 25

Drawing Lines in the Sands of Mercy

Several months ago, Pope Francis declared this year to be a "jubilee year of mercy." Mercy is something that everyone - regardless of denomination, religious tradition, ethnic or cultural background - is called to show to other. One story in particular comes to mind from early in the Johannine corpus. In the Gospel According to St. John 7:53-8:11 we read, "Then they all went home, but Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. At dawn he appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, 'Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In The Law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?' They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, 'Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.' Again he stooped down and wrote on the groundAt this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, 'Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?' 'No one, sir,' she said. 'Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.'"


Many footnotes say regarding this passage, "The earliest manuscripts and many other ancient witnesses do not have John 7:53-8:11." This pericope (passage from Scripture) is not found in the earliest manuscripts of St. John's gospel. In fact, in the earliest manuscripts it actually seems to float around - it was in some manuscripts at one time a part of Luke's gospel before eventually migrating to John's. This is important, because it shows us that regardless of where this passage originated or where it eventually ended up, it tells us something deeply integral to the life and character of Jesus. Even if this passage was not part of the original Gospel of John (or Gospel of Luke, for that matter), and was a later tradition or memory of an actual event, it stands true as perfectly capturing an important part of his message to us.

Now, in several Christian branches, primarily the Catholic and Methodist, we find the concept of "works of mercy," sub-divided into the seven corporal and seven spiritual works of mercy. The corporal works of mercy focus on the physical needs of people - such as feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, harbor the harbor-less (or shelter the homeless) or visiting the sick, whereas the spiritual works focus more on forgiving others willingly, comforting the afflicted or bearing wrongs patiently. One does not need to be a Christian to live out these works of mercy. The word "mercy" at one point in history referred more to kindness or grace, but in the Latin (and Spanish) it is rendered as misericordia - meaning "miserable heart," or rather, "a heart full of misery" toward the situation of another. 

Mercy can also extend to taking care of our environment, showing mercy to our animal companions, showing mercy to our friends, our co-workers, our bosses, our brother(s) or sister(s), our parents, our spouses, and so forth. What we see present in the above pericope from St. John is an act of mercy on the part of Jesus. A professor of mine shared with me once an exchange he had with a Taoist priest regarding this passage. The Taoist priest said of Jesus, "I like your Jesus. I was reading this passage, and here he is a good Taoist." The Taoist philosophy places a special emphasis on non-action or no-action, which appears to be what Jesus does in response to the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees. When they come to him to use this woman in order to trap him, he instead merely answers by drawing in the sand!

What Jesus actually drew in the sand is a matter of speculation. There was an ancient Jewish law that when a woman was caught in the act of adultery, there must be at least two eyewitnesses present - and even if this was the case, the text in John does not mention any witnesses. This meant that the teachers of the Law and the Pharisees had already broken the law - but Jesus bent down and wrote in the sand, or the dust, just as in ancient times a priest would bend down and write the law which was broken and the names of the individual(s) being accused, so that the writing was not permanent. Thus, some scholars believe that Jesus was writing the sins of the Pharisees rather than of the woman, namely that of breaking the law. For evidence, some turn to an ancient passage in Jeremiah 17:13 which says, "O Lord, the hope of Israel, all who leave your way will be put to shame, those who turn aside from my ways will have their names written in the dust and blotted outfor they have departed from the Lord, the fountain of living waters."

Regardless of whether Jesus was doodling in the dust or writing the sins of the people, in doing so - and in his thoughtful yet pointed response, "Let anyone who is without sin cast the first stone" - Jesus prevented group violence on a large scale. In the Hebrew, the word "sin" essentially means "to miss the mark," as if you had a bow and arrow and missed your target. The people in the crowd as well as the Pharisees and the teachers of the law knew that they had all missed the mark, if for no other reason than using this woman's sexual misconduct as a way to trap Jesus. In return, instead of bringing further public shame and attention to this woman, he showed mercy, and through his actions showed her love and forgiveness, which no doubt led to healing. 

The story, taken this way, can be a convicting one. It forces us to ask a lot of deeply personal questions of ourselves and of those around us. It may ask us to challenge social norms, or as it is called in Catholic Social Teaching, "structures of sin" found within society. Consider the work of mercy, "harboring the harbor-less." Many have pointed out that we need to be willing to accept the refugees from overseas into the United States, to "harbor the harbor-less." This is an act (or work) of mercy. On other occasions, we find ourselves asking how we can find healing, forgiveness and love in any form in such events as the terrorist attacks on France last year, or the more recent attacks on Brussels. Or, if we live in a fast-paced and overstimulated society that has bought into consumerism, materialism and hedonism, we also question why we must bear wrongs patiently, or even be patient! 

Perhaps the question to ponder during this time of Easter, then, is this: who are we aiming our stones at in our lives? Are we aiming stones at anyone? Where in our lives can we or should we show more mercy, or how can we be more loving toward those around us? On March 17, 2013, Pope Francis shared that, "the past few days I have been reading a book by... Cardinal Kasper [who] said that feeling mercy... changes everything. This is the best thing we can feel: it changes the world. A little mercy makes the world less cold and more just." A little mercy can lead to a lot less sadness, and a little more love and compassion can lead to a better world.

"Seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with your God."

- Micah 6:8 -

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