For several years I was required as a District Court Judge to sentence people for wrongdoing. In the past, the focus of sentencing judges was squarely on punishment for past wrongs, even to the point of sending a person to death. But now we operate within a new law. This does not direct soft options, and I regularly had to send people to prison for serious offending. I was required to hold the offender accountable for his wrongdoing, condemn his behaviour and try to deter him from repeating it. But, I also had to look beyond these principles: to the long-term reintegration of the offender into the community. I therefore regularly imposed rehabilitative sentences, either instead of or after prison sentences. For me, in encountering every person standing in the dock, I was challenged to see him or her as a child of God. In virtually every sentencing address, I tried to find space for the word “hope”.
In today’s Gospel Jesus is called upon to sentence a woman for the Jewish crime of adultery. He was met with the same approach of our past: a mindset which focussed on punishment for the wrong she had committed, even to the point of sending her to her death. Her accusers said: “Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women”. What was Jesus’ approach to this matter? Astonishingly, he responded in a way which corresponds with our new approach to sentencing. He does not in any way condone her behaviour: after all, adultery, with all the pain and suffering it brings to families including innocent children, runs directly counter to Jesus’ call to selfless love. He ends his encounter with the woman by denouncing her behaviour and trying to deter her from repeating it. He says: “from now on do not sin any more”. But he looks beyond her public humiliation, and points the way to her rehabilitation. Her reform would not have not been possible if she had been stoned to death.
The essential point being made by this incident is that our faith challenges us to balance our rejection of bad deeds with a new, forward-looking focus on the person. This was the call of the prophet in Isaiah: “Remember not the events of the past; see, I am doing something new!” This theme was taken up by Paul in his letter to the Philippians: “forgetting what lies behind, I continue my pursuit toward the prize of God’s upward calling”.
And Christ’s way in our Gospel today also underlines a central human truth: that the capacity for wrong-doing and failure lies within each of us. We need to acknowledge this and try to nurture the hope of renewal that also lies within each of us. Jesus challenged those who were without sin to cast the first stone. It was the elders (people like me) who first acknowledged Jesus’ message, and left the woman alone. Likewise, our great Saint Paul in our second reading accepted with humility that he has not “already attained perfect maturity, but I continue my pursuit in hope that I may possess it”. And today we can take a lead from our Pope. His first words after being elected were: “I am a sinner, but as this office has been given to me, I accept”. He has proclaimed this year as a year of mercy.
And finally we turn to the nature of the wrong of which the woman stood accused: a sexual one. We must rightly condemn sexual encounters involving violence, the abuse of the young and exploitation of others. But our Pope is a man who strongly encourages his priests to baptise children of single mothers and has prayed with former prostitutes. He has also said: “If someone is gay, who searches for the Lord and has goodwill, who am I to judge?”
In similar vein the great Christian convert C S Lewis said:
If anyone thinks that Christians regard unchastity as the supreme vice, he is wrong. The sins of the flesh are bad, but they are the least bad of all sins. All the worst pleasures are purely spiritual: the pleasure of putting other people in the wrong, of bossing and patronising, and backbiting; the pleasures of power, of hatred. That is why a cold, self-righteous prig who goes regularly to church may be far nearer to hell than a prostitute. But, of course, it is better to be neither.
Jesus’ new way is one of loving mercy towards others and towards our own frail selves: just as we are. Let us be confident in God’s mercy and may others be confident in our mercy to them.