A few weeks ago, when I was getting into my car at a local shopping center, a couple emerged from the grocery store; they were engaged in a loud, vulgar domestic dispute. They shouted insults at one another for several minutes. On the basis of their very public animosity I wondered how it was possible that they had ever been attracted to one another.
Although they seemed to have no shame about airing their personal grievances in public, I was embarrassed for them; their conversation was the sort of thing that should have taken place behind closed doors. A similar sort of embarrassment motivated Jesus’ action in today’s Gospel reading.
The Gospel says that when a group of scribes and Pharisees brought a woman caught in adultery, Jesus “bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger.” (John 8:6) The act of doodling in the sand was a common gesture in Jesus’ culture; it expressed public discomfort about an awkward situation.
Apparently, the woman was married, but had been caught with another man. She had behaved shamefully, but the behavior of the scribes and Pharisees was even worse. They stooped so low as to use the woman’s sin as an excuse to accuse Jesus of impiety. I wonder whether Jesus was embarrassed by the woman’s sin or by the shamelessness of the scribes and Pharisees.
Regardless of the precise cause of Jesus’ discomfort, the really significant aspect of the story is his response to being confronted with the gross failings of others. Jesus was non-judgmental. He did not judge the sinful woman, nor did he judge the shameless scribes and Pharisees. On the contrary, he acknowledged that sin was an unavoidable aspect of the human condition. He said, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (John 8:7)
There are many opinions about God’s reaction to our sins. Some people are convinced that God waits eagerly to pounce on sinners, and meet out retributive justice. Others envision God as an accountant who weighs one’s moral liabilities against one’s moral assets. Still others, view God as happily giving permission to anything that serves one’s sense of self. Have you ever considered the possibility that God is embarrassed on our behalf when we sin?
When confronted with a catalog of sins from the woman, the scribes and the Pharisees, Jesus didn’t lash out. He didn’t ask for an accounting of their lives; nor did he merely dismiss their offenses as insignificant. When confronted with all those sins Jesus was distraught and embarrassed on behalf of those who had sinned.
Jesus’ reaction provides us with an unique perspective on repentance and on the penance we choose for Lent. This story in John’s Gospel portrays repentance as existing not for the purpose of avoiding punishment, nor for shifting the odds back in our favor. Rather, it says that repentance exists for the purpose of bringing us back to a place of innocence before God and others.
Try to apply this perspective to your experience of Lent and your experience of your own sinfulness. Try to see yourself in the way that Jesus saw the sinful woman and her shameless accusers. Try to see God as slightly embarrassed and discomfited by your sins. The remedy for this situation is repentance, not as self-condemnation, but as a return to the way of life that God desires for all people.
When we stand before God at the end of our lives it would be really awkward and embarrassing if God looked at all we tried to accomplish to make ourselves righteous, and God didn’t know how to respond. Rather than risk an awkward moment with God, Jesus urges us to be faithful to God’s intent in creating us: that we should acknowledge our sins, but strive to live up to God’s hope for our restored innocence.