Fr John's Homily - Who's the biggest sinner here?

11 April 2019 | General Interest


Who’s the biggest sinner here? 

Project Compassion for Caritas Australia

Jn 8.1-11,  Is 43.16-24, Phil 3.8-14

There is a striking sculpture in the Sydney seminary at Homebush, relating to this moving Gospel story, where this young fellow is bent over, holding a rock in one hand, frozen in the moment, with the question as to whether he’d picking it up or putting it down, having thought better of it, responding to the words of Jesus! Like last week’s open question about big brother and whether he comes to the party or not. We know what the right answer should be, but it’s up to us to freely make the decision.

Life as a Christian in the early Church could be tough, not just with persecution and vilification, but with the rather unreasonable and harsh restrictions on forgiveness. Constantine, who as Roman Emperor decreed Christianity as the religion of the Roman Empire in 313AD, did not himself formally become a Christian until he was on his deathbed. And well might we ask why? Back then, it had evolved that there were 3 unforgivable sins, being adultery, murder and apostasy, or denial of the faith after professing it. So it was a one strike and you’re out situation, and Constantine knew that he’d more than likely get caught up in the first two big sins at least, so he was ensuring his 11th hour eternal salvation at the deathknock, to get the water poured!! As time went by, over ensuing centuries, things moved from public penance to private confession and forgiveness to mitigate the harshness of the earlier practices, which really failed to take Jesus’ Gospel message of compassion and forgiveness to heart.

It seems sexual sin was given high profile as among the most serious offences around. At the same time, it could well be argued that, don’t we know, in the sexual arena and beyond, there are far worse sins than adultery, (which is not direct grounds for annulment either), but it’s fair to ask why it might occur, understandably, in some situations, but naturally without condoning it.

And, funnily enough, today’s Gospel story floated around for 3 centuries or more, before it landed, being incorporated into the bigger picture of John’s Gospel, as the early Greek versions didn’t have it included. Those who should know, (that being the scripture scholars), suggest it would have fitted better into Luke’s account, as his focus was very much on the counter-cultural inclusion of women throughout the public ministry and teaching of Jesus.

Can we not see that one of the big problems here is the absolute hypocrisy of the law, for one thing, and of those men trying to apply it literally, not just by accusing, but by their readiness to judge without question, proceeding to pick up the rocks and justify their murderous intent by following the rules and stoning her to death, no doubt with a degree of sadistic bloodlust justified by the technicalities of an unjust law.

One of last week’s questions for me was “Where’s Mum?” in the Prodigal Son/Forgiving Father/Angry Big Brother story! This week’s could well be “Where’s the other adulterer?”  – the man caught in flagrante with the accused, defenceless woman. Why should he get off scot free, when he certainly shouldn’t! It takes two to tango, does it not?

It is said that the Exodus ruling on stoning the woman for adultery came from the presumption that she was her husband’s possession, and that the prohibition for the man was more because he was stealing another man’s wife! Go figure, but that’s the way things were in a male dominated society, where the double standard still continues in many parts of the world today.

An extreme example comes from “The Kite Runner” by Khaled Hosseini, who describes a ghastly and brutal Taliban application of Sharia Law as entertainment during a soccer game in Ghazi stadium in Khabul Afghanistan: “They brought them out shortly after the half-time whistle blew… I suddenly understood the purpose of those two holes behind the goalposts… Now only the accused’s torsos protruded from the ground… When the prayer was done, the cleric cleared his throat… ‘Every sinner must be punished in a manner befitting his sin… A tall broad shouldered man stepped out of the pickup truck… wearing dark round sunglasses like the ones John Lennon wore… looking absurdly like a baseball pitcher on the mound (he) hurled the stone at the blindfolded man in the hole… The woman screamed again… When it was all over, when the bloodied corpses had been unceremoniously dumped into the backs of red pickup trucks – separate ones – a few men with shovels hurriedly filled the holes… A few minutes later, the teams took the field. The second half was under way.” This graphic account helps me realize the appalling and abhorrent nature of stoning as a sentence.

That’s where Jesus presents such a different perspective in his attitude towards and treatment of women in his world. We can see the male religious leaders in particular resenting his tolerance and inclusion. My Spanish mate Jose Pagola has a whole chapter in his book “Jesus: A Historical Approximation” titled “A Friend of Women”, where he states of this particular scenario: “In another captivating moment, Jesus reacts boldly to the moral double standard by which men and women are judged unequally.” In this episode today, he notes: “Nothing is said about the man… The woman is humiliated and condemned for dishonouring her family. Meanwhile no-one mentions the man, although paradoxically, it is men who are exhorted by Torah not to possess or desire another man’s wife. The law is addressed to men as the ones responsible for society, but the punishment falls harshly on the women. Jesus does not accept this social hypocrisy created by men. The woman is not more to blame than the man.”

Pagola continues:“The end of the story is heart-rending. The woman has not moved. She stands there, humiliated and ashamed. Jesus is alone with her. Now he can look at her tenderly and express all his respect and affection… She hears no condemnation from him.” In his parables throughout the Gospels, “He puts himself in the women’s place and makes them protagonists of his parables… Jesus takes advantage of every opportunity to present women as a model of faith, generosity and selfless commitment.” (Although it might be anachronistic to present Jesus as a forerunner of modern feminism, committed to a struggle for equal rights between women and men.” It would be a stretch to put him at the forefront of the “MeToo” movement of today!)

Then again, there’s no doubt Jesus advocates a fair go and voice for all, women, men and children, Jews and Gentiles or pagans, as Paul later goes on to express, despite the latter’s chauvinistic tendencies, as a single man of his time, with perhaps a certain fear of females, for Paul, that is, not Jesus!!  Respect & dignity restored, as well as forgiven and given another chance, which is what we all need over and over, don’t we?

Furthermore, says Pagola: “Patriarchal relationships do not exist in God’s reign. Everyone sits in a circle around Jesus, renouncing power and dominion over others in order to live at the service of the weakest and most defenceless.” And let’s remember, it’s the women who are faithful to the end as well hear in coming weeks, up front on the way of and then at the foot of the cross. Where are the chaps, apart from John, the disciple he loved?

This logically leads to the more than obvious further reflection is the question of the role of women in the Church today, religious and lay! Where would we be without them at the level of support and involvement in our parish communities, our schools, welfare, social justice and refugee groups, St Vincent de Paul Society, after they agreed to permit women to be active members, so on the list goes.  And we’d have had a lot less problems with the whole abuse crisis if women had been involved in the decision making processes at higher levels, where the distorted priorities were protection of the perpetrators, rather than hearing the victims, and keeping up appearances of the Church as a ‘Perfect Society’, which it has never ever been, particularly with me and you in it!! So here’s hoping the 2020 Plenary Council takes this into account and those with the helmets and sticks seriously consider the recommendations made by those who have conscientiously contributed.

And here is our final Project Compassion story, to keep us informed about some of the global projects supported by the great work of Caritas Australia, this time in Bangladesh.

john hannon    6th April 2019


To read more of John's homilies click here