17 Mar 2013
“Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with His finger.” (John 8:6) (+)
It was the first week of Lent and I was in the Apple Store at the Holyoke Mall. First I was waiting in line by myself to get up to the Genius Bar and then I was hanging around as one of the Geniuses tried to fix my daughter’s phone. Off at the other end of the Genius Bar was a young man with fire-engine red hair who was also being helped. As I’m sitting off to the side just watching the number of people coming and going into this store, some taking lessons on how to get the most out of all these contraptions, I couldn’t help but feel like an alien. None of this stuff gets me excited, and the stuff that does must bore a lot of these folk. Sometimes it feels like I’m from another world.
And as I’m watching all of this I overhear the fire-engine red haired young man talking to one of the Apple employees – another young man. And I’m assuming that their conversation was inspired, at least in part, by me – the alien standing off to the side in the collar. The part of the conversation I overheard was the red haired guy saying to the other guy, “And you let them put ashes on your head?” From the tone of his voice I got the impression that the practice was not completely foreign to him. His question, instead, was why in the world would you submit to that? Why tolerate the mark of sinfulness and mortality on your body and then advertise it to everyone you would see that day? Why let them do that to you? Now since this conversation was turned in my direction, the red haired guy was no longer sitting at the Genius Bar, and since the employee was a little bet nervous about their discussion – no employee wants to upset a customer, namely the alien in the collar, I’m assuming the question was meant to be heard, and that it was meant as a challenge and rejection of all that a collar symbolized to the red haired guy.
And you know what bothered me the most about this whole encounter, or at least afterwards when I was thinking about it and even now, was not so much his opinion, but that I didn’t pursue it further. How I wish now I had asked the red haired guy to go have a coffee with me at the Starbucks right outside of the store. His fire engine red hair, his youthfulness, his technological savvy, he could be any of the number of college kids and young adults that don’t see the need for church anymore, that see the organization of church as actually a negative presence in the world. To him, maybe Jesus is meaningless, but definitely, church is. The community of faith, the Communion of this altar, has become irrelevant to him, as I imagine it. These shrouds and all that they represent of a society that has no need for Jesus was right there in front of me. The shrouds don’t only represent the past; they’re telling us about today.
And I want to ask this Passion Sunday a bit of a troubling question based on this morning’s Gospel. Can we see any connection between the Jesus who is writing in the dirt and the fire engine red haired guy who speaks loudly enough so that the priest can hear what he has to say about the ashes? Both of them, Jesus and the red-haired guy, were talking to the priests of their day. Both of them could be viewed as unconventional. And both of them seem to have had a real problem with religious institutions and their priorities. This wonderful story of Jesus and the woman caught in adultery is a story of its own. It almost didn’t make it into the Bible. In a lot of editions, it’s placed within brackets. It obviously interrupts the flow of John’s Gospel. It would fit much better at the end of Luke 21, but some editor cut it out of that story. It’s not included in any of the earliest Greek manuscripts of John, but it was deemed authentic and too special to ignore, so eventually it was dropped in at John 8. But all of this confusion lets us assume that this story agitated a good many religious authorities and they didn’t know what to do with it. For this reason alone many scholars view it as authentic because who would make it up.
The religious authorities catch the woman in the act of adultery. The Law is clear what should happen. She should be stoned to death. And the religious authorities are only too happy to fulfill their responsibility. They come over to test this forgiving religious teacher about what He would do. Would He break the law? Jesus sees how excited they are to execute this woman. He bends down and starts writing in the dirt, and the Greek word is writing. Jesus isn’t doodling. So I wonder if He’s writing out the law about adultery. It takes two to tango and she was caught in the act. Where’s the guy? Was he too powerful to be implicated, too connected, too familiar? You want to play by the rules of the law, Jesus is saying, bring the guy here too. As soon as it becomes embarrassing to pass judgment, they silently, one by one, walk away. So brave and willing to do God’s will when there are no consequences to them, but so pitiful when Jesus turns the table.
Now it’s only Jesus and the woman. He doesn’t seek to condemn her, never mind to stone her to death, but He does try to change her: “‘Do not sin anymore.’” Is it any wonder this passage was bounced around and almost lost? Even the early Christian authorities didn’t exactly know what to do with this kind of forgiveness that sought change more than punishment. This story is a condemnation of religion’s rush to judgment, and it’s a reminder that this was not who Jesus was. The statement about the ashes by the red haired man in the Apple Store, did it come from the same perspective as Jesus writing in the dirt? Does church come across too often as condemnation and judgment? Have we turned the cross only into a statement about sinfulness rather than into a powerful message of God’s love, that God would even endure this torture rather than leave us alone especially when we face our own trials and torments? Some have no need for God, others are just lazy, but some don’t hear in church the message of a loving and understanding God. The institution tends towards rules and their enforcement and a lot of people aren’t interested. I’m not. This Passion Sunday let us try to reverse the absence of Jesus from the lives of too many by proclaiming the Jesus of today’s Gospel who cares more about us than the rules. Let us share His invitation with others. Let us not let opportunities pass like I did with the red-haired guy. Let us try to make church in the image and likeness of Jesus writing in the dirt and not in the image of the institution He challenged. For this we pray in His name. Amen. (+)
Fr. Randolph Calvo