Fr. David’s homily March 13, 2016.
Homily on left – Gospel reading on right.

Mercy

This is a quite tender and familiar gospel story. We can’t help but get caught up in the high drama of it. Who was this woman caught in the very act of adultery?  Was she a married woman cheating on her husband? Perhaps she was a single woman, driven by passion into the arms of a man she loved? I suspect there is much more to the story of this woman than what is described here.

The book “Jesus as Pedagogue of the Oppressed,” offers some valuable insights for our reflection. The author retrieves the social setting of the agrarian society in the time of Jesus. He writes that during that time there was a great deal of abject poverty and injustice inflicted on peasant farmers. The ruling elites, concentrated in Jerusalem – and that included the Jewish priestly class – were squeezing the dwindling resources of the peasant base in Galilee and Judea. Between 10-15% of the population were so called “the expendables” – mostly young men and women who were forced into the most degrading and lethal forms of poverty. For them life was “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” Could it be that the woman caught in adultery was a 14 or 15 year old Galilean peasant girl,  abandoned early on by her parents who were not able to feed themselves and their male off springs? She might have had to sell herself just to stay alive.  Who knows? And who were the people accusing her? They were the scribes and the Pharisees – the men of privilege, tied to, and many ways benefiting from the social system that was victimizing so many poor peasants. And why were the scribes and the Pharisees pointing their finger only at the woman and not the man? Why was the man not part of their moral equation? We don’t have all the details to make an informed judgment. Circumstances play a huge role in determining the rightness or wrongness of an action.

I believe you know that we friars minister to prisoners on death row, men convicted of first degree murder and sentenced to be executed by the State. Most of them are poor, black, uneducated, under-represented in court. Pope John Paul II, Pope Benedict and now Pope Francis have all condemned the death penalty as inhumane and not worthy of a civilized people. It is equivalent to stoning in our time. Stoning, sanitized by lethal injection. Here is a story I carry in my heart. It’s entitled “Touching the Heart of a Killer,” written by Albert Tomei, former Justice of the New York Supreme Court.[1] Tomei writes about one of his trials.

                Throughout his criminal trial, the defendant’s deadly stare never varied. It was his beacon of hate, warning everyone to stay away. If the eyes are the window to the soul, the defendant’s soul was in the firm grasp of Beelzebub. The young man in my courtroom in Brooklyn was charged,along with two cohorts, with gunning down another young man execution style…. Every day for two weeks the victim’s family attended the court sessions. On the day of sentencing, his mother and grandmother addressed the court. [The] victim’s mother…turned slowly toward the convicted killer. Looking into his hateful stare, she began to speak in muted tones. There was no primal call for revenge or retribution. Instead, her message was distilled by days of endless grief. “I have no bad feelings she said, “I could never hate you.” For the first time since the trial began, the defendant’s eyes lost their laser force and appeared to surrender to a life force that only a mother can generate: nurturing, unconditional love. Following the brokenhearted mother, the grandmother also looked directly into the defendant’s eyes and spoke unflinchingly about her loss. She told him she was sorry he had committed the crime because “You’re a nice-looking young man.”

Her message was simple and clear: “So you did the crime. You broke the golden rule: loving God with all your heart…and loving your neighbor as yourself. I am your neighbor. So anyway, you have my address. You want to write, I’ll write you back, because I sat here two weeks and for 6 months. I tried to hate you. But you know what? I could not hate you. I feel sorry for you because you made a wrong choice.” Judge Tomei concludes his article: “After the grandmother finished, I looked at the defendant. His head was hanging low. There was no more swagger, no more stare. The destructive and evil forces within him collapsed helplessly before this remarkable display of humaneness.” I would add: “Before this remarkable display of mercy.”

In the gospel story Jesus saved not only the woman caught in adultery; he also saved from their own hypocrisy those who were accusing her. It is easy to get self-righteous and feel superior like the scribes and the Pharisees. It is much more difficult to recognize ways that we, like them, either blame the victim, or get on a bandwagon of quick criticism and condemnation without asking the question, “Why?”  Years ago, a very wise person gave me this advice: “Remember, when you point a finger at someone, you often forget that your three other fingers are pointing back at you.” In his encyclical letter: “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis writes: “An authentic faith — which is never comfortable or completely personal — always involves a deep desire to change the world, to transmit values, to leave this earth somehow better that we found it. We love this magnificent planet on which God has put us, and we love the human family which dwells here, with all its tragedies and struggles, its hopes and aspirations, its strengths and weaknesses. The church cannot and must not remain on the sidelines in the fight for justice. All Christians…are called to show concern for the building of a better world.” (183)

Amen.

David J. McBriar, O.F.M.

[1] Albert Tomei, “Searching the Heart of a Killer,” NYT, Op-Ed, March 7, 1997.

 

JN 8:1-11

Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. But early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery and made her stand in the middle. They said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him,
he straightened up and said to them, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he bent down and wrote on the ground. And in response, they went away one by one, beginning with the elders. So he was left alone with the woman before him. Then Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She replied, “No one, sir.” Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”