The webpage of the Youth Ministry of the Irish Province of Augustinians

5th Sunday of Lent Year C - 21st March 2010

The story of the woman caught in the act of adultery has to be one of the most emblematic stories in all of the gospels.  It is interesting to note that this passage did not originally form part of John's gospel but was part of a "floating tradition" which was incorporated into the gospel at a later date.  This gives testimony to the power of this passage and the importance attached to it by the earliest Christians.

Many things could be said about this passage including the observation by St. Augustine that while the law was written on stone tablets, Jesus wrote on the earth which bears fruit.  Certainly, at the heart of this incident is the whole issue of the interplay between religion and law.

When law meets religion we very often find ourselves face to face with some sort of a moral code.  A moral code can be extremely useful as an aid for how to live together in peace and harmony but, it seems, there is a continual danger of the code taking on a life or importance of its own, quite apart from the religious values it seeks to express.  We have seen this recently in the attitude of Church leaders to Canon Law (the code which seeks to give order to the life of the Church and the believing community).  It would seem that Canon Law and not compassion and justice has been, to our shame, the guiding principle in dealing with the evil of clerical sexual abuse of children.

One of the weaknesses of a moral code is that it can create the impression that once all of its norms are observed, everything else will follow.  We run the risk of reducing religion, which is always about relationship (and all that that implies), to simply following the rule book almost as if we were expected to tick boxes on a form.  This is to intellectualise religion which is really missing the point.

In terms of the rules, the pharisees and scribes were correct in the way they dealt with the woman.  However, just as the law can allow people to live in peace it can also become a burden.  They had entirely missed the point that the law was designed to protect the covenant of love that Israel had with God.  This was a covenant of commitment, faithfulness and love.  By the time of Jesus it would seem that religious authorities had moved from this experience of the heart to a sort of intellectual administration of the covenant.

This attitude of the head makes it extremely easy to climb up on to the high moral ground.  From the high moral ground it is extremely easy to be able to identify the faults of others.  Those who climb up on to the high moral ground, however, seem to forget that it makes it a lot easier for their own faults to be spotted by others.

Truly, the high moral ground, while it may look attractive from a distance, is a slippery place.  It is very seldom that anyone who takes up their position on this ground remains there for long.  When Jesus suggests that the person without sin should throw the first stone it is not coincidental that the oldest among the group withdraw first.  Not only are the oldest the most likely to have "a history" of some sort; they are also the ones who should be the bearers of the greatest wisdom in the group.  They are the ones that should have the perspective to see beyond the empty dry law to the values that that same law seeks to protect.

Today's gospel passage seems very appropriate for our situation in Ireland today.  All over the place - Church, Politics, Economy - we see people clambering up on to the high moral ground and proclaiming (sometimes, it would seem, with great glee) the faults and guilt of others.  Words like "best practice", "integrity", "coherence", "competence" etc. are bandied about almost as if someone had a solution to our present difficulties.  At the heart of each of these difficulties are people - real flesh and blood people - and we must not lose sight of this.  It is important to intellectualise things - that is when we can identify the issues.  However, once the issues have been identified it is time to move out of the head and into the heart so that compassion, understanding and, utimately, healing, can take place.


Article posted on 18th of March 2010

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