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Go ahead! Throw the first stone!

Fifth Sunday of Lent


Sin is a very liberating thing. It’s a shame we have forgotten it. Just think what might not have happened in the world if we had had a little more respect for personal sins, a little more knowledge of our own, a little less condemnation of everyone else’s. We may have been spared the shame of the stocks in Boston, the Magdalene laundries in Ireland, the penal colonies in Georgia, the back-alley births of so many children of single mothers, the front-page pictures of professional people found drunk in public and, in our own day, the Web pages of sleazy private information released to justify the impeachment of a president. But no, as we see in the gospel for the fifth Sunday of Lent, the story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11), we love making sinners “stand in front of us.” In public. How else can their sins take attention away from our own?

This Sunday we’re made to look sin square in the heart, and we’re tempted to say -- if we have been trained to take Lent seriously -- it’s surely about time. Interestingly enough, however, we are made to look at sin this week not to determine the way we admit our own, but to examine the way we deal with everyone else’s. The question with which the Fifth Sunday of Lent confronts us is a serious one: Am I committed to being religious or to being righteous? There’s a disturbing amount of difference between the two.

We do a great number of things “religiously,” as if they were sacred, with the intensity of the saints, in other words. We do our accounting religiously, we visit our mothers religiously, we go to the kids’ soccer games religiously, we walk the dog religiously, we count sins religiously, and we practice our religion religiously -- meaning that we do the things we’re supposed to do and we do them all the time. And we do them very well. And we do them more often than anyone else. We do them so well, in fact, that we have come to think that the very act of doing them is what makes us holy.

To be righteous, on the other hand, is to do what is godly, to be decent, to commit ourselves to what is above and beyond the trappings of religion, to strive for the essence of religion, which, if we are to believe this week’s gospel, is clearly the open-handed, foolish, measureless, boundless embrace of the unembraceable.

The most religious thing of all Jesus shows us may be the loving acceptance of those who have trouble doing what is “religious” and “right,” however socially correct, however upstanding it may be, however correct they themselves would like to be.

That’s where we begin to get a little nervous. That’s where the spluttering starts: With that kind of loose-living attitude, what would happen to moral standards? What would happen to the moral fiber of the nation? What would happen to the neighborhood? What would happen to the family, the church, the town, the office, the school if we tolerated deviance, if we didn’t stop such deviations, if we didn’t require good, upstanding, moral behavior? In fact, that’s the trouble these days, isn’t it? That’s the “L” word. We’ve been “liberal.” We’ve become lax. We’ve deteriorated. Or rather, they have deteriorated. We have not.

And so the new religion, which is really only more of the old one dressed up in indignation and sour shouts of doom, is setting in. The punitive, the authoritarian, the conservative -- meaning reactionary -- is becoming commonplace. We want longer prison sentences for first offenders. We want “three strikes and you’re out,” a “throw-away-the-key” approach to smalltime repeaters whose harm has been only to themselves. We’re not interested in protecting the innocent; we want to kill the killers. We want the dissenters silenced. We want the nonconformists excommunicated. We want the rebels reduced to nothing. We want law and order.

So intent are we on religion that we have forgotten righteousness. We can’t understand the Helen Prejeans who walk to our electric chairs with the condemned. We have no time for crafty lawyers who plea-bargain for the people our newspapers convict. We deplore judges who give reasonable sentences to decent people who have found themselves in indecent situations. We wonder about those who consort with the people we suspect. We look with a touch of bewilderment at all those people who treat lovingly the ones we cannot yet love because we ourselves are still more religious than righteous. So much for Jesus with thieves. So much for Jesus with tax collectors. So much for Jesus with women taken in adultery. So much, indeed, for a gospel riddled with the unacceptable, the suspect, the devious and the weak -- for the lepers and the Samaritans and the women.

It isn’t, of course, that there’s no place for accountability. It’s just that there’s no place for condemnation once we face our own sins. The problem is simply that there’s no place for stoning if we are the ones supposed to be pure enough to do it.

Yes, think about sin we must during Lent. Jesus is confronted with a sinner about whose punishment the law was plain. The Pharisee’s question of what to do with her was an easy one. Jesus, if religious, should have condemned her. But Jesus, the righteous one, did not.

What is really going on here? What’s Lenten, repentant, about that? To understand what this gospel is calling us to do, we must think of more than law and sin here. We must at the same time think of Sadducees and Pharisees and Jesus.

The Sadducees were the archconservatives, the clerical caste, the ultra orthodox of Judaism. They found the fullness of religion in the law and their role in preserving it. The Pharisees were the liberals of the establishment. They loved the law enough to allow it to develop and to diffuse it throughout the whole community of Israel. The problem is that Jesus was neither a Sadducee nor a Pharisee, neither a conservative nor a liberal. The fact is that Jesus was too liberal even for the liberals. Jesus didn’t let the law become a barrier between him and the person in front of him. Jesus was a radical. Jesus was a lover. Jesus was a radical lover.

Indeed, it’s time to look at sin in a Lent full of hard questions. Live the real thing, be what you must, grow as you should, become what you can, the gospels have been telling us these weeks. And now, this week, the message is plain: Beware of letting sin consume you. No, not yours. Theirs. The fact is -- have we forgotten as did the Pharisees in the gospel? -- that we have more than enough of our own sin to struggle through.

Surely we are being told much more in this gospel than the fact that we, too, have sinned, something we know only too well in the depths of our dark hearts. Maybe we are really being told that if the world is really deteriorating, it may not be them who are doing it after all. Maybe what is really disintegrating now is the amount of love and listening it takes if the world is to be propelled back into a holy, healthy, happy existence that no amount of force and fear can achieve.

More important still, perhaps the message is more necessary than ever in this world intent on heavy sentences and excommunications and social shunnings. If you yourself are without sin, go ahead. There are people aplenty out there, struggling, trying, hurting, failing. Feel free: Hunt them down. Grind them under. Count them out. Throw them away. Chortle over their shame. Go ahead. Throw the first stone.

Now that would really be a sin.

Benedictine Sr. Joan Chittister, author and lecturer, lives in Erie, Pa.

National Catholic Reporter, March 23, 2001