“Auntie Mame” was released in movie theaters in 1958 by Warner Brothers studios. Rosalind Russell starred in the title role as a slightly flaky socialite who fell on hard times. The story was set in the roaring 20’s and reflected the decadent social values of that era. At one point in the movie, a couple of Mame’s household employees were conversing with a carpenter who was updating the house’s interior design for the second time in as many weeks. The carpenter asked about the raucous parties that Mame hosted. The maid responded that there had been twelve all-night cocktail parties in the previous two weeks. The carpenter asked, “Only twelve?” The maid responded that Mame was so hung-over on two occasions that she couldn’t host parties on those nights.
Despite her rather hedonistic lifestyle, Mame was a good judge of character. She was well aware of her own failings, the failings of others, and the virtues of the good people in her life. I mention this movie and its title role because it provides a good illustration of the various ways in which the word “judgment” can be used.
There are some judgments that all people must make on a daily basis. The movie’s main character Mame was able to make appropriate judgments about her own personal strengths and weaknesses and the personal strengths and weaknesses of others. “Judgment,” in this sense, is something every person is responsible to do. On the other hand, Mame did not pass judgment on others or judge people harshly; it is this sort of judgment that Jesus warns us to avoid.
The event in today’s Gospel is the sort of experience that young people today would describe with the exclamation, “Awkward!” The Gospel says, “the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery.” (Jn. 8:3) Think about what that means. Jesus seems to have been quite uncomfortable with the situation. The act of writing in the sand (Jn. 8:6), was a common expression of discomfort in Jesus’ culture.
The scribes and Pharisees who set up this situation had already passed judgment on the woman and were hoping to be able to pass judgment on Jesus, as well. Jesus’ response to their question about how he would handle the situation is a prohibition of judgmental behavior but encouragement to exercise good judgment.
Jesus’ response to the judgmental Pharisees is well-known. He said, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (Jn. 8:7) Jesus beat the scribes and Pharisees at their own game; he denied neither the woman’s guilt nor the punishment prescribed in the Law of Moses. He did so by exposing the duplicity of the woman’s accusers. They were guilty of what modern psychology calls “projection.” Projection is a psychological defense mechanism that allows a person to ignore their own failings by blaming other people or things as the cause of their own dysfunctions or inappropriate behaviors.
Jesus knew that no one in the crowd was innocent of concupiscence and, therefore, no one was entitled to inflict punishment on the woman. Jesus didn’t do this in order to embarrass the scribes and Pharisees. Rather, he was trying to turn their attention to their own failings, the sins over which they had real control, the sins which merited true repentance.
Psychological projection is still alive and well today. In every courtroom and jail, there are people who blame their own violent and dishonest behavior on someone or something else. It has, in fact, become something of a cultural joke that if one acts in an anti-social fashion, the easiest escape from culpability is to blame society or one’s parents.
There is, however, an even more insidious shifting of blame that has become popular in our culture. Today, it is very popular to shift attention away from one’s failings by demanding that attention be given to one’s needs and wants. Instead of blaming one’s crimes or failures on one’s difficult childhood, it is increasingly popular to justify one’s selfish behavior on the basis on one’s perceived needs. This is still the excuse-making of the scribes and Pharisees, but without the pretense of appealing to societal rules. It might be somewhat more honest to justify one’s sins on the basis of one’s perceived needs, but it is no less sinful. The woman’s accusers blamed her for their lascivious actions, and in doing so convicted themselves of sin. Would it really have been better to claim that they were entitled to act in lascivious ways?
Jesus hoped that all present would repent and return to God with their whole hearts. Repentance, however, can be very difficult because it requires a very great deal of honesty about oneself. This is a timely lesson as we approach the end of the season of Lent.
If you have spent this Lent in the virtuous pursuit of repentance, you might have found temptation to be stronger than you expected and your sins to be more intractable than you had hoped. Jesus’ famous quote to the scribes and Pharisees provides help and guidance in this situation. In order to repent of sin, one must first repent of scapegoating, excuse-making, and denial of wrong-doing. This is where making good judgments becomes necessary. Every person is responsible to make good, moral judgments about their own strengths and weaknesses and the strengths and weaknesses of others. This is not permission to pass judgment; rather, it is a requirement to take responsibility for one’s life.
It’s rather late in Lent. Perhaps, you haven’t made as much progress as you had planned. It might, however, be an opportune time to understand what Jesus meant when he said, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone.” (Jn. 8:7) Repentance of sin requires first that one repents of one’s excuse-making.