The Repentant Pharisees

Scripture Readings

Today’s gospel needs little interpretation. It’s one of the clearest and most unambiguous passages in all the Christian Scriptures. This story fits in well with Luke’s narrative regarding the scribes and Pharisees trying to entrap Jesus by posing difficult moral questions. That’s why many Scripture scholars believe that this passage was originally part of the Gospel of Luke, rather than the Gospel of John. In this story, the Pharisees were trying to pit the gospel of love and mercy that Jesus was teaching against the requirements of the Law of Moses. As often happened with Jesus, the outcome didn’t go well with the Pharisees. They were focused on the exterior and superficial, while Jesus went straight in for the heart and soul.

One of my Scripture commentaries noted that the moral of this story doesn’t imply that God doesn’t punish sin. I wholeheartedly disagree. I believe with good reason that that’s exactly what it does mean. Jesus not only refused to condemn the woman caught in adultery, but he demanded nothing of her. He simply sent her away with the exhortation to change her ways. He did not punish her; he only called her to a change of heart—a metanoia—which was the only message he preached throughout his entire public ministry. Jesus was always perfectly consistent.

It’s clear that, for followers of Jesus, sin can’t be looked at merely as disobedience to the Law. Sin is harboring those attitudes that are destructive to our relationship with God, our relationship with others, and our relationship with ourselves—the selves we were always meant to become. Those sins—those attitudes—carry with them their own negative results. Sin, by its very nature, is self-punishing.

Last week, we considered the parable of the loving son and his older brother, and I asked which of the two boys you considered to be the greater sinner. I believe it’s inescapable that the jealous, resentful older brother was the one who sinned and refused redemption. He didn’t even change his attitude when his father pleaded with him. In today’s gospel, we find a similar situation. The woman was caught in adultery. Evidently, she was to be condemned as a law-breaker. But was she a sinner? Neither Jesus nor we have any business judging her behavior at face value. That may sound like a radical statement, but then, following Jesus is a radical commitment. The sinners in this situation were the Pharisees themselves. The woman’s behavior certainly fell short of what was expected of her, but only she and God knew what was in her heart. Everybody knew what was in the heart of the Pharisees who brought her to Jesus for judgment.

Some people speculate that what Jesus was writing in the dirt was a list of the sins of the Pharisees. Others think it might have been Scripture passages about judgment and mercy. Or, maybe, it was nothing at all. “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.” The thought had to have occurred to the Pharisees, especially the oldest ones, that, “There but for the grace of God go I.” Between adultery and the thoughts of their hearts, the difference between a serious, so-called “mortal” sin and a light, so-called “venial” sin is really just one of degree, not kind. What’s the difference between adultery in the heart and adultery of the body? What’s the difference to the sinner between murder in the heart and murder of the body? The real sin is in the mind and heart—the body just follows along.

See the difference? The woman was evidently caught in a moment of passion, or perhaps she was a prostitute and did it to survive. What was in her heart, we don’t know. The Pharisees brought the woman to Jesus out of murderous hatred for him, or equally murderous resentment because he was showing them up publicly. Either way, their animus and hypocrisy was so much more caustic, so much more destructive than anything the woman may have conceived of. The real sinners were the accusers who were looking for vengeance. They obviously were seeking vengeance against Jesus, but how about vengeance against the woman? Might not her adultery have been something they secretly wanted for themselves but were restrained by fear of exposure? There’s a useful aphorism here that goes, “Righteous indignation is envy with a halo.”

That points the way to a deeper message hidden in the background of today’s gospel. When we’re upset by other people’s behavior, it’s often because it strikes a chord within us. It reminds us of something inside that we’d rather not face, rather not acknowledge, and it’s easier to try to get rid of the reminder than to deal with our own inner flaws. That’s why, whenever we’re upset by someone else’s behavior, it’s imperative that we turn our attention inward first and ask ourselves honestly why we’re reacting.

Over the past few years, I’ve been very upset by the political situation in this country. Every time, I’ve had to ask myself why. Is it because the behavior in the person I’m upset with reminds me of a character defect I’m afraid to look at? Am I, in the depths of my heart dishonest, untruthful, self-centered, ambitious, resentful, or any of the other defects of character I see in some of them? Is this, after all, a case of “You spot it, you got it?” or is it something else? As honest as I can be, I believe that the majority of my upset comes from watching innocent people being made to suffer unnecessarily and not being in a position to do anything to stop it. I’m continually reminded that I’m powerless to change anyone else; I can only change myself. Every one of us has to live in a world where injustice is rampant. We can’t fix that any more than the disciples could stop the crucifixion. That image of Christ on the cross becomes a constant reminder of the world we live in.

What can we do to address our inner flaws? One suggestion is that, at the end of the day, when we’re doing our personal inventory, it’d be helpful to examine our attitudes, rather than focus on the things we might have done wrong and creating a laundry-list of missteps. This is particularly appropriate as we approach Holy Week and our celebrations leading up to Easter. Let’s check our feelings. When were we annoyed? When were we impatient? When were we resentful? What during the day were we unhappy about? Was there anyone we wanted to get back at? To correct? To punish? When we’re taking our inventory, it’s a good idea to keep in mind that “every time we’re disturbed, no matter what the cause, there is something wrong with us.”[1]

We can’t fix our world—we don’t have that power. We can’t even fix our corner of the world, nor anybody who inhabits it. Our power to change extends only to the limits of our own skin. When we’re tempted to condemn—or even look critically—at another on account of their behavior, we would do well to emulate the Pharisees in today’s gospel and take a good look at ourselves. At Jesus’s suggestion, they examined their own motives and changed their behavior. They walked away. And that’s the essence of repentance: to change our minds, to see things differently. We don’t have to struggle to change our behavior. Our struggle must be deeper than that. For when we change our minds and hearts, the change in our behavior will follow naturally. It’s not our behavior where sin resides, it’s in our motivations, and that is within our power to change.

“Has no one condemned you?”

“No one, sir.”

“Neither do I condemn you. Go, and…do not sin anymore.”

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[1] A.A. Grapevine, Inc., Twelve Steps and Twelve Traditions, New York:1981, p. 90.