1 APRIL 2001
Scriptual Reference: John 8:1-11

      I brought a rock with me today. I picked it up this morning out of our driveway at the rectory, after I read a story in the paper about the situation in the middle east. This rock is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, yet big enough to do some real harm if wielded properly. As you are probably aware, the Israelis and Palestinians have been engaged in bitter conflict for many weeks now and the situation is worsening. "In West Bank towns," the story reads, "youths taking cover behind garbage bins hurled rocks at soldiers, who fired live rounds from jeeps and fortified outposts." The fifty year conflict is a sad one. Both Israelis and Palestinians commit atrocity after atrocity, provoking the other side to condemn their actions and swear revenge. It is a cycle of violence that won't seem to end. Outsiders struggle to understand why the violence must continue, why they can't put down their stones and guns long enough to make peace.

       Stone throwing is not something that is new to the middle east as the gospel points out today. Jesus' faces a seemingly unsolvable problem, a conundrum if you will. His words and actions can teach the family of humanity about the ways of peace. But, since we here at St. Malachy do not comprise a think tank for middle eastern policy, we would do well to consider how Jesus' words and actions can teach all of us how to put down the stones that we carry.

       The gospel begins as Jesus goes to the Mount of Olives and returns to the temple area in the morning to teach. This narrative detail points to an important pattern in his life. Jesus frequently throughout his ministry retreated into solitude, spending time by himself in prayer with his Father. There in the quiet cool of a middle eastern night, he could reflect, rest and prepare his teachings. The next morning, he returns and begins his lessons, teaching a sizable crowd. In the middle of class, however, some scribes and Pharisees rudely interrupt and push a young woman into the center of the teaching area, for everyone to see. They set Jesus up and ask him what is to be done with her: if he follows his own teaching about mercy and condemns the Mosaic law which orders her stoned, he will be branded a heretic. If he orders her stoned, he will be branded a hypocrite.

       What Jesus does next is significant. Instead of jumping into the contentious conversation, he squats to the ground and writes in the dust. Jesus reaches no immediate conclusion, he does not act out of impulse. Instead, he takes time to consider carefully the situation. The woman's life was in the balance, and his credibility was on the line after all. But they press him for a statement, much like obnoxious paparazzi seeking an exclusive. What Jesus says next is brilliant, as he offers the scribes, Pharisees and the crowd a third perspective. "Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." And then, each person, one by one, puts down their stones as they claim their own issues, and walks away, leaving Jesus and woman by themselves.

       Since I've been a priest, I have talked to a lot of people about a lot of things, both in confession and outside of that sacrament. My mom recently asked me to characterize my pastoral conversations. "What is the number one struggle of most people?" she asked. Without missing a beat, I was able to say many people struggle with "judging other people." I think most people are aware that assessing and judging most situations is in itself not sinful. We do this all the time, and we need to do this, in order to interact with others in appropriate ways. I think most people are concerned about how they brand others, label them, gossip about them. They are remorseful because they have poised themselves to hurl stones at the reputation or the dignity of another person. Most folks want to know how they can put down the stones that they are always holding over someone else's head. They want to stop blaming others for their own unhappiness.

       There is an important lesson in the story we hear today, a message that is consistent throughout all of the gospel. Judgment is for God alone. "Do not judge and you will not be judged," Jesus says. "Remove the plank from your own eye before removing the speck from your brother's eye" Ultimately, we must realize that it is always easier to judge the sins of another, especially when their sin is not our sin. It is easy to condemn persons with a homosexual orientation, if we have been born into the mainstream of heterosexuality. It is easy to condemn divorced and remarried Catholics if we have not experienced the pain and heartache of a marital breakup. It is easy to condemn a relative or co-worker for not having the emotional balance, or the professionalism, or the sophistication that we have if we have not walked a mile in their shoes. How easy it is to stand over others, stone in hand, ready to hurl it at their head after a rash and fleeting judgment.

       There is a monk from St. Meinrad who has a golden saying, one that I often repeat to myself and others. "The issue is not the issue" he always said. Why do we stand so easily poised to condemn others? Probably because it help us cope with the pain of our issues, the issues that eat us up inside, the issues that keep us awake at night, tossing and turning. To condemn another is to avoid judging one's self. To condemn another is to avoid the deep change we desperately need. Jesus shows us what to do in the gospel, and how to put down our stones. We are called to the same quiet reflection that he experienced on the Mount of Olives. Like him, we are to avoid rash judgments. We need to pause, to figuratively write on the ground. We need to discover the third option, the one that no one else has considered.

       The story today ends, as St. Augustine once said, when "misery meets mercy." Jesus and the accused woman stand alone together, and her humiliation, her misery looks into the face of compassion. The actions and words of Jesus come together in a sweet message. "I do not condemn you" Jesus says. But there is a catch, "Go, and from now on, do not sin anymore." Jesus' mercy is freely given, but is not cheap. Without judgment, Jesus calls this woman to accountability for her actions. He does not berate her, he does not shame her. All of us have thrown rocks at others, and for this, we need to be forgiven. But we have also been like this woman, accused and judged by others who are ready to stone us. And Jesus says the same to us: "I do not condemn you. Go, and from now on, do not sin anymore."   +

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