Fifth Sunday of Lent (April 7, 2019)
I think it was Aesop who told the wonderful story of the blind men and the elephant in which various blind men had different perceptions of an elephant, depending upon their limited experience of touching one part.
Today’s Gospel is like that for those who hear this story. Some hear it as a test by the Pharisees, so that they can condemn Jesus. Some hear it as Jesus’ statement on capital punishment. Some, sensitive to women’s issues, hear it as “the case of the missing man.”
This story sounds like it belongs more in Luke’s Gospel than John’s. It stresses the compassion of Jesus - a main theme of Luke.
The episode is popularly named the woman caught in adultery. Not accurate. Obviously, a caught woman implies a caught man. We don’t hear a word about him. According to Dt 22: 23f, both the man and the woman were to be stoned to death if a married woman was caught in adultery. Why was only the woman brought before Jesus? So much for equality in enforcing the law
Perhaps that double standard helps explain why Jesus’ response to her accusers was so effective. They were willing to condemn her but backed off when faced with their own double standard.
The question was supposed to put Jesus in a serious dilemma. Jesus must either: on the one horn, uphold Moses, or he would put himself above Moses. Also, his reputation for compassion would erode. Or, on the other horn, uphold Rome’s prohibition of Jewish sponsored capital punishment and thereby lose his reputation as a faithful Jew.
This Gospel is a striking example of Jesus’ non-dualistic thinking. Although Jesus showed a few examples of dualistic thinking [either/or], he clearly moved beyond the persistent practice of the Jewish leaders of his day and of so many people of our day. In this Gospel, Jesus was offered two options, but he created a third option. He neither condemned the woman nor ignored her sin. He brought her to fresh, non-dualistic thinking. Non-dualistic thinking can be stated positively, “tertigenic thinking,” bringing forth a third option – a form of “thinking outside the box.”
Jesus, by his refusing to condemn the woman and refusing to ignore her sin leaves open the possibility to accept him, a forgiving person, as mentor, not the self-righteous Pharisees. She could thereby enter a new path: personal relationship with our Lord. He maintained the delicate balance of forgiving the sinner while not condoning the sin: “From now on, do not commit sin.”
What did Jesus do in the sand? Perhaps, he detailed the sins of the accusers [St. Jerome] – or, perhaps, quoted older scripture about compassion: “It is mercy I demand, not sacrifice,” or, perhaps, cited the verses from Deuteronomy so the leaders would recognize their own faults…or just doodled and used the silence to prod the consciences of the accusers. We simply don’t know.
Jesus consistently opposed violence: he teaches us: “Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you, blessed are the peacemakers, be compassionate as your heavenly father is compassionate.” Here, he challenges those who are ready to kill the woman. Upon being arrested himself, he will order Peter to put away his sword.
The story of the blind men and the elephant finds us already what an elephant looks like. It has as its humorous, instructive point: having seen what the blind do not see and hearing the foolish ways they describe the elephant.
Today, our prior knowledge of Jesus being the compassionate face of god provides us with the “big picture.” That makes the narrow-minded, dualistic judgment of the Jewish leaders appear sadly incomplete. This understanding of Jesus’ compassion overarches: a test by Jewish leaders, a statement on capital punishment, and the women’s issue.
Let’s let the word, “compassion,” ring in our ears and in our hearts this Lenten season.