In today’s Gospel that we just heard proclaimed, we saw how the scribes and the Pharisees dragged the adulteress before Jesus, in public, and asked Him whether they should stone her or not. In doing so, the scribes and the Pharisees were judgmental, self-righteous and merciless in the way they treated the adulteress.
Many if not all of us would probably feel that such a harsh and heartless treatment is uncalled for and we would have preferred to treat the adulteress with compassion, and without necessarily having to expose and shame the adulteress in public.
While this may be our preference of treating the adulteress, let us take this view one step further by reflecting on the way we live our lives daily. For this, today’s Gospel is urging us to reflect on the meaning of self-righteousness A “self-righteous” person is one who can be described as having high standards especially moral standards when others are concerned. Being self-righteous, he makes exacting demands, gives no excuses, exceptions or slip-ups on such high standards.
However, when it comes to judging himself, a self-righteous person often makes all kinds of exceptions and justifications for the wrongs and sins he himself has committed. In other words, a self-righteous person tends to judge others ruthlessly and rigidly, but is conveniently forgiving and blind to his own faults and sinfulness.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, I believe today’s Gospel is challenging you and I to be more conscious of the times when we may be “self-righteous” or lack the Christ-like attitudes of compassion in the way we view others and relate to them.
A few common examples may help us in our reflection. When someone comes up to us and stretches his hand to ask for some money, and is smelling of alcohol, would we immediately give him some money or would we jump to the conclusion that if we give him the money he would only go and drink and get drunk. If this is so, we would turn away and ignore the person or worse still, we may even treat the person harshly and say to him, “Go away, get a job and stop drinking.”
My sisters and brothers in Christ, if we do this to the beggar, are we not being judgmental and self-righteous? Are we not making exacting and ruthless moral demands on him? In doing so, are we not missing the bigger reality of what is happening in this beggar? I have met many such beggars, and most of them are not educated and cannot find a job because nobody wants to employ them; they have no family and they sleep in some corner of a void deck or market place. They are rejected by the public, including Christians like us, and live without much hope and consolation from anyone. Being in such a dark and depressive state of life, robbed of all dignity, they swallow their pride and approach us for some money for their food and in all probability to drink another bottle of beer, just to dampen their deep sorrow and loneliness; only to be rejected by us, who call ourselves Christians.
Who are we to judge them? And, if we do, are we not behaving harshly and self-righteously like the scribes and Pharisees in today’s Gospel? The next time we meet a beggar and especially someone smelling of alcohol let us think twice; let us not judge too quickly and perhaps it is helpful to ask ourselves, “Would our Lord, wish for us to see His face in these poor and marginalised persons; should we not respond with greater compassion?
There is also a true story of an employer, Julie (not her real name) whose maid was caught stealing a few hundred dollars from her. In such a case, what would we do? Would we not immediately sack the maid and sent her back? However, instead of jumping into conclusion, Julie chose to treat her maid with dignity. She sat her down and asked her why she did what she did, when she had been treating her like a family member. Upon further enquiries Julie found out that her maid had taken her money because her father was very ill and she needed the extra money for his medical treatment. To make a long story short, Julie forgave her maid and advised her to seek her help whenever she had problems and are in need. Julie’s maid was deeply grateful to her for her compassionate love and promised to repay her gradually over the subsequent months. Julie tells me that her maid has since the incident become even much more dedicated in caring to her aged parent. In fact, she is now really excellent. When we treat others with respect and compassion, will we not be God’s instrument of peace, unity and joy?
However, in very serious cases like infidelity of spouses, we can understand that such experiences are traumatic and devastating for the family. All trusts in the unfaithful spouse is lost; more so when the unfaithful spouse continues to break his/her promises and remain unfaithful. Without superficialising the complexities of such cases, let me also say that I know of cases where the unfaithful spouse experiences a conversion of heart, and eventually returns to the family and becomes a faithful spouse and a good parent to their children. All this was able to happen because in the most trying times, the hurting spouse continues to storm heaven for the graces she or he needs to forgive unconditionally and remain strong for the good of their children and holding on in trust that God will eventually provide and prevail. When we dare to continue to trust in God’s power and Compassionate Love for our needs and the greater good of our families, God will never fail us.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, the woman in today’s Gospel was guilty of adultery; indeed this is a grievous sin. However, the great difference between Jesus and the scribes and the Pharisees is that, while Jesus condemned the sin of adultery, He did not condemn the adulteress. This is because for Jesus, the purpose of His Mission is clear. He has come to fulfil His Father’s Will to save all sinners, and never to condemn them. As such, when Jesus related to the adulteress, He did so to set her free from her terrible burden of her sins so that she can have a new direction in her life. To do this, Jesus bends down to the ground to the adulteress’ level and restores her dignity and self-esteem from that of a public sinner to that of a reconciled daughter of God His Father.
In one of Pope Francis’ homilies, he says, “I think we too are the people who, on the one hand, want to listen to Jesus, but on the other hand, at times, like to find a stick to beat others and condemn them. And Jesus has this message for us: mercy. I think — and I say it with humility — that this is the Lord's most powerful message: mercy.
Ron Lee Davis tells the true story of a priest in the Philippines, a much-loved man of God who carried the burden of a secret sin he had committed many years ago. He had repented, but still had no peace about it. In his parish was a woman who deeply loved God and who claimed to have visions in which she spoke with Christ. The priest, however, was skeptical about that. To test her he said, "The next time you speak with Christ, ask him what sin I committed while I was in the high school." The woman agreed. A few days later the priest asked, "Well, did Christ visit you in your vision and dreams?" "Yes, he did," she replied. "And did you ask him what sin I committed back in high school?" "Yes." "And what did he say?" She smiled and answered, "Christ said, 'I don't remember.' "
To this, Pope Francis adds, “It is not easy to entrust oneself to God's mercy, because it is an abyss beyond our comprehension, but we must! ... Go to Jesus: He likes you to tell him things like, "Oh, I am a great sinner!" And in hearing this, Jesus has a very special capacity for forgetting: He forgets, He kisses you, He embraces you and He simply says to you: "Neither do I condemn you; go, and sin no more" (Jn 8:11).
And finally, as I conclude, let us remind ourselves that today’s Gospel is challenging you and I, first to be more conscious of the reality of our sinful ways of being judgmental and self-righteous in the way relate to others. Second, regardless of how sinful people may seem to be, we are called to remember that there is a bigger reality than what we see on the surface of things and people; whether they be a drunkard beggar who approaches us for some money, or our maid who took our money, or our unfaithful spouse who continues to break his/her promises and the like.
We are called never to be self-righteous and instead, draw people closer to God, by first allowing God’s Compassionate Mercy to forgive us of our own sinfulness. In being reconciled with God, our minds and hearts would then be more open to say to people, as Jesus did to the adulteress, “Neither do I condemn you . . . Go and sin no more.”
(Ref.: Story of Ron Lee Davis, Homilies of Fr Anthony Kadavil, Vatican Radio – Features-Asia: Liturgical Reflections.
Adapted from: Pope Francis’ homily, March 17, 2013.)
Fr Philip Heng, S.J.
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