Today’s Gospel is all about shame and mercy. It is easy to see how religion has been used over the course of human history as an instrument of shaming. This encounter of the Pharisees with Jesus is a study of “contrasts.” They bring to him a woman who has been caught in the act of adultery. (As an aside, it always bugs me that the charges are made against the woman only. Where is the man in all of this?) They think they have Jesus caught, for he either has to observe the Law by allowing her to be stoned to death, or if he forgives her, he is superseding the Mosaic Law which calls for her death.
His actions are louder than his words. He does not confront the Pharisees or even shame them. He does not enter into debate with them. Rather, he invites the first one without sin to throw the first stone. The contrast is even physical. The Pharisees throw this woman into a circle of condemnation. All eyes are on her with judgement and shaming. Jesus, on the other hand, does not look at them or at her. Instead, he begins to write on the ground, with his face down. He does not heap shame on them, but they leave the place because he has put them in a publicly difficult situation. When they all leave, finally he looks at the woman. “Is there no one here to condemn you? Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
We all carry with us the scars of shame. How many voices still echo in our hearts with the words: “Shame on you.” Or “You should be ashamed of yourself.” Parents, teachers, priests, even the flight attendant who thinks the bag we are carrying on the plane is too big! They could all be well-meaning, and want to help us with the formation of our conscience. (I wouldn’t include the flight attendant in this!) Significant people in whom we have placed our trust have used shame as an instrument of instruction, motivation and formation. All of us carry a “shame-history” deep in our hearts. We also carry our own personal “sin-history.” Both of these can make it difficult to believe in the mercy of God.
You see, the ultimate fear is that when God sees all about me, I will have let God down. God will be disappointed in me or even ashamed of me. It becomes very difficult to receive mercy when we are filled with paralyzing shame. We want to hide and we are in danger of such self-deception that we become even strangers to ourselves.
As a teenager, I once went to talk to a priest. We weren’t in a confessional, or even an office. We were sitting in his living room, and I recall pouring out my heart with the sins that I thought God would want me to confess. It turned out to be a rather lengthy story to tell, and after I finished, I was exhausted, self-conscious and quite vulnerable. The priest stood up and said, “Ok, let me go and get my stole, and I want you to confess this all over again.” This was not an act of mercy, but for a sensitive teenager it compounded the grief, the fear, and the shame! Needless to say, it was a long time before I could muster the courage to go to confession again!
If you recall the “original sin” of the Adam and Eve story, you will remember that after eating the forbidden fruit, they hid from God and from each other. The clothing they had put on was a clothing of shame. This is why God asked: “Who told you you were naked?” Their disobedience and loss of innocence came with a profound and deep shame.
Some might argue this is healthy, as it might prevent shameful acts on the part of anyone contemplating them. However, public shaming, though it has been often used, has never been understood as a healthy formation of conscience that we need to steer our moral ship.
In his book on “Prayer,” Rev. Ron Rolheiser suggests that shame is not something we experience at the failure of an unfulfilled duty, rather, we are shamed in our “enthusiasm.” “We are made to feel guilty, naive, and humiliated about our very pulse for life and about our very trust of each other.”
How can the mercy of Jesus reach us and heal the deeper wounds of our shame?
Since this is the last Sunday of Lent, we would do well to unite our vulnerabilities, our shame and sin history with Jesus who became vulnerable for us. We can do this through prayer, through our own acts of mercy, and possibly through telling someone who has the gift of compassion about those areas of shame that we need healed. The mercy of Jesus flows from the cross, remembering his words to Dismas, the thief: “This day you will be with me in paradise.” That mercy is greater than all shame, all sin. Pope Francis has invited us to contemplate the deep mystery of God’s mercy this year. Let us remember the scene of this woman judged so harshly by the world around her, yet she meets the mercy of God in the loving eyes of Jesus. This is ultimately what gives her a new beginning. In God’s loving mercy, we can have a new beginning as well.
Williston is a retired Parish Life Director for the Diocese of Saskatoon and a former missionary with the Redemptorists. He is also a song writer and recording artist.