"Neither do I condemn you"
(Readings: Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11)
Introduction to Mass
One of the Christian monastic writers wrote somewhere that "it's better to be stripped of all virtue than to fail in love". As far as God is concerned it's better to be a weak person who knows he's weak and so doesn't judge other people harshly, than to be a person whose conduct is morally perfect but whose heart is callous and unforgiving. Jesus tries to teach the Pharisees that lesson about God's nature in the gospel today.
Let's begin this Mass by thinking of the times when we've been happier to condemn other people instead of searching our own hearts and admitting our own guilt, and let's ask God for his forgiveness and for the grace to change.
All the readings in the Mass this Sunday have the same theme running through them: we shouldn't waste time brooding over our past faults and mistakes, and we shouldn't allow them to stop us from cementing our relationship with God now, in the present.
In the first reading the prophet Isaiah is talking to a people whose city and way of life has been destroyed. God has done marvellous things in the past and he'll do great things again in the future. It's what lies ahead that counts. "No need to recall the past," he says, "no need to think about what was done before".
Saint Paul says the same sort of thing in his letter to the Philippians. "I forget the past," he writes, "and I struggle ahead for what is yet to come."
Paul is realistic enough to know that looking optimistically to the future is often easier said than done. We can be haunted by past actions that we now recognise as wrong, selfish, harmful to others. If we can repair any damage we've done, we always should, but getting fixated on the sins of our past life is a waste of time and a lack of trust in God's forgiveness.
Saint Paul compares his efforts as a disciple of Christ to running in a race. If someone wants to run in a race he or she needs to prepare, needs to train. If they slacken off, there's no point just feeling guilty or regretful. What they need to do is to get back into training again before they lose completely whatever fitness they'd built up.
It's the same in the spiritual life. If we've become apathetic we need to become aware of it, and acknowledge our weakness, our lack of motivation. We need to examine our conscience to see why things have gone wrong. And we need to be open to God, and try to see what direction he would like us to move in. Eventually, we make the important discovery that we never get very far by our own efforts and our own resources. We're dependent on God's grace. We stand in need of his love and mercy and forgiveness.
This was something that the scribes and the Pharisees, in the gospels, weren't very good at recognising. Their moral standards were very high and very strict. They were proud of their achievements and they looked down on other people who were weaker or less strong-willed than they were. They lived by a strict set of moral rules, and their great fault was - as the gospels say - that they were very self-righteous and felt they had no need of God's mercy.
So the question that they ask Jesus in the gospel today is naturally enough a question about the Law - how it should be interpreted, how it should be applied.
It was a trick question. They weren't interested in genuine dialogue, they were trying to damage Jesus' authority. If Jesus had said, "yes, the woman is guilty of adultery, so she should be stoned", he would have lost his reputation as a preacher of God's mercy and patience and forgiveness. If he had said they should let her go without any punishment, he would be saying that there's nothing wrong with committing adultery. So he was trapped.
Jesus got out of it by moving the goalposts - not because he didn't want to give them a straight answer, but because he couldn't have given them a proper and truthful answer by remaining inside the framework that they dictated to him. The Pharisees were concerned about the letter of the law, whereas Christ was more concerned about the spirit of God's holiness and love.
The Pharisees thought it was enough to make sure that the Law was rigidly enforced. Christ's response was that if we welcome God's influence on us, we become more compassionate, more understanding, less inclined to compare ourselves morally with other people, usually in our own favour. God gives us a clearer sense of our own weaknesses and failures, and one of the main ways that takes shape is in a reluctance to condemn other people.
In our culture now, just as much as in Christ's day, people like to luxuriate in condemning others. It's always a relief to have the moral spotlight shining on someone else. Sections of our modern media, the tabloid press in particular, specialise in oversimplifying complicated and sometimes tragic human situations, holding individuals up to ridicule, proclaiming their profound evil in sanctimonious language that makes the rest of us feel very righteous.
There's a great security in the boundaries that sort of exercise draws up: the boundaries of them and us. We belong to the majority of ordinary, good, law-abiding people; whereas the men and women demonised on the front pages of the tabloids have given up their right to be treated as human beings. We're given a sort of permission to condemn, to reject, to hate.
For Christ, of course, there's no them-and-us. It's not a matter of denying that what the woman has done is wrong, that she's a "sinner" in the language of the gospels. It's a matter of saying to her accusers: you, equally, are sinners, and this particular person is no different on principle from you.
Christ wants the boundaries of them-and-us to be broken down in favour of a shared honesty about the moral frailty and sinfulness that affects us all, and on the basis of that, a shared humility regarding ourselves and a mutual compassion about lapses and failures of any kind and of all kinds. Encouraging this sort of ethos is part of the deep conversion Christ invited his listeners to.
So there are the two lessons in the readings today that we can apply to our lives as Christian believers, two ways of deepening our own conversion to the way of the gospel.
One is to forget the past, as Paul says, and not become weighed down with guilt for past faults. God never refuses to forgive someone who is genuinely sorry for what he or she has done.
But the other lesson is that we should never lose sight of our own frailty, our personal share in the flaws of human nature. That realisation should help us identify with, and feel compassion towards, our fellow-sinners, and make us want to draw them back into solidarity with ourselves rather than refusing friendship and expelling them from what we imagine to be the circle of the righteous.