This homily was delivered at Mary the Queen on 17 March 2013.
Everyone loves a trick question, and today’s gospel reading is one: a trick question that’s also a trap. The scribes and Pharisees think they’ve come up with the perfect trap for the Lord. They drag a woman out into the public square and present to him a dilemma: This woman has been caught in adultery. According to the law of Moses, she should be stoned. What to do?
It’s your classic “Damn if you do, damn if you don’t” set up. Or as one popular local actress once put it, “Damaged if you do, damaged if you don’t.”
If our Lord stops them from stoning her, he will be accused of violating the law. If he says, “Go ahead,” he will of course be blamed for the death of a woman. Either way our Lord will be in trouble. But of course, to the surprise of the Pharisees, our Lord comes up with a Solomonic decision without falling into their trap. Without having to answer the trick question, the Lord tosses the ball back to his foes and challenges them: “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Naturally, no stone is cast, and the self-righteous scribes and Pharisees, now reminded of their own sins, walk away in shame.
We could talk about how wise our Lord was in fending off his enemies. Or we could also spend this time discussing how forgiving and merciful he was towards the woman caught in adultery. But this morning, what strikes me most about this whole episode is our Lord’s feelings towards the woman. How did he feel towards the sinful woman. The woman was a complete stranger to him; yet you could feel the tender compassion that he felt for her. It was, more than anything else, this feeling of compassion, not any abstract thought or moral principle, that made him decide how to respond to the scribes and Pharisees.
So the question for me is: Where does this compassion come from? What is its source?
Here’s my theory: When his teaching in the temple area was interrupted, and the weeping woman shoved to his feet, our Lord must have thought of his own mother. As we know, his mother Mary was found to be with child before getting married to Joseph. In other words, she could have been accused of adultery, and she could have been stoned to death had Joseph not decided to divorce her quietly to spare her life. In fact, in a recent BBC TV series called “The Nativity,” Mary is portrayed in one scene as being attacked in the marketplace precisely because of the accusation of adultery, an event that, in the film, convinced Joseph to take Mary with her to Bethlehem.
When our Lord took one look at that woman caught in adultery, he must have seen his own mother, and he must have been overcome with a surge of such tender compassion that he had to look away and write on the ground. Perhaps the words he wrote, whatever they were, were swimming in his tears.
My takeaway from this story is that forgiveness is possible only when we feel connection and compassion. The only way to even begin to forgive is to feel connected to the person who has gone astray, the way our Lord did in this episode through the memory of his mother. And the only way to want to forgive someone is to feel compassion for the person.
I remember that in one assignment, one of my biggest challenges was working with people who simply refused to cooperate. I tried everything I could, but all efforts turned out futile. What was painful was that in front of me, they were the nicest people and exchanged with me the most pleasant of pleasantries, but behind my back, it was a totally different story. As a result, everything I tried to do in those early years ended up getting sabotaged. And again and again I heard the warning both outside and inside me: “Be careful! They are wolves in sheep’s clothing.” In other words, these people pretended to be nice but were actually out to harm you.
Needless to say, I was hurt. I felt betrayed. But I was also angry and found it difficult to forgive. I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to forgive them. That’s hard because if we don’t want to forgive others, there’s just no way we can actually forgive them.
I prayed about this–my inability to forgive these people, and even my lack of desire to forgive them. I brought all this to the Lord and asked him for help. And then one day, he responded and gave me this realization. These people who were so opposed to me–they were sad and disappointed people, hurt by the way life had treated them. Contrary to my initial notion, they were not wolves in sheep’s clothing. Instead they were sheep in wolves’ clothing, scared and hurt by life, but forced to be tough and defensive if only to protect themselves. As the poet Rilke writes in his Letters to a Young Poet: “Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.”
That changed everything. Something clicked in me, and suddenly it was easy to forgive. I felt connected to them because I know what it means to be hurt and how easy it is to be tempted to allow life to harden our hearts. And more importantly, I felt compassion for them. Forgiveness is possible only when there is connection and compassion.
Maybe that’s what we can think about this morning: Is there anyone out there in our life whom we, for whatever reason, have been unable to forgive? Do we even want to forgive that person? Perhaps this morning we should pray for the twin graces of connection and compassion. I believe that connection and compassion are twin graces that the Lord is bestowing on the Church in a special way these days.
Our newly elected Holy Father, Pope Francis the Humble, epitomizes both because he has a gift of connecting to people and he has lived out compassion through his deep love for the poor. His name is inspired by the saint best known for his connection to creation, his desire for peace, and his concern for the poor.
Let us pray for these two special graces. Only when we feel connected to those who have hurt us and only when we feel compassion for them–only then can we finally bring ourselves to forgive.