“The woman caught in adultery” is a famous, but very strange, story. (One aspect of its strangeness is that it doesn’t appear in early manuscripts of the John Gospel where we find it today [8:1-11], but does appear in some early texts of Luke [after Lk 21:38]; and scholars describe its theme and style as much more akin to Luke than to John. It is presumed to be a story that circulated independently in the early church, and was incorporated into the John Gospel by a scribe at some early date.)
But the strange aspect I’m interested in is this: When we read or hear the story, Jesus’ words and actions make perfect sense: “Let the one without sin cast the first stone”; “Neither do I condemn you; but from now on, avoid this sin.” But remember: we’re looking back in time – we know how Jesus answers. If we shift perspective, and try to put ourselves into the same situation – first with the Pharisees, and then with the woman – could we come up with one, much less two, perfectly-fitting actions? I doubt it.
This to me is a mark of something that religious formation all-too-often forgets: “Becoming Christlike” isn’t a matter only of piety or of morals: It is a matter of learning to see, to understand, and to act on all of our experience as Christ would: that is to say, more accurately than we now do. This isn’t a matter of intelligence, but it is a matter of guided practice and, perhaps more importantly, of setting and of holding fast to a goal.
To take seeing, understanding, and acting in order:
We know that Jesus was concerned that his disciples see accurately: “Take the plank out of your own eye, first, before you take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” [Lk 6:42] The “plank” is our assumptions, our biases, our prejudices, and all the rest that distorts what we tell ourselves is “reality.” To become an effective disciple is to acknowledge that we are biased; to learn the minute details of exactly how those biases affect us (to the best of our ability); and to work consistently to correct for our ongoing biases.
We know that Jesus was concerned that his disciples understand not just him but the world around them accurately: “Look closely at how the wild flowers grow” [Lk 12:27]; “By their fruits you will know them” [Mt 7:16]; and too many other places to list….
And we know that Jesus was concerned that his disciples act wisely on what they perceive and understand: “”The Kingdom of Heaven is like ten virgins, five of whom were wise and five were foolish” [Mt 25:1-13]. “Do not cast your pearls before swine” [Mt 7:5].
In short, Jesus wants his disciples – us – to grow more effective in doing his work. That means not just piety and good morals (although it certainly includes those), but – even more to the point – accurate seeing (acknowledging and overcoming biases); correct understanding (rather than settling for slogans or easy answers); and wise actions (rather than “taking the easy way,” or any of the other hundreds of escapist possibilities).
See. Understand. Decide and act. Wisely. Our church needs to do a better job of helping every Catholic to learn while growing up to do this consistently. In the meantime, we can work on it in our families, and in ourselves. Until next week, peace.