Tuesday, April 12, 2011

"His life is not like that of others, and different are his ways" (Reflections on Jesus and the woman caught in adultery, John 8:31-42)

When I was preparing the homily for Mass last Friday, there was a line from the first reading that struck me and which I couldn’t seem to get out of my head. It’s from the Book of Wisdom, and it says:

“His life is not like that of others, and different are his ways”.

It points primarily to Jesus, of course; but it also refers to every Christian, and especially those who profess a desire to follow Christ's footsteps even more closely: priests and those like yourselves who feel called to this life, seminarians.

When I was a student, my spiritual director used to remind me that a priest is meant to be a reminder to everyone he meets that there are things in this world that transcend the transitory nature of life. “The priest is meant to be a reminder that there are lasting and eternal values”, he would say. “He is meant to remind people that there’s more to life than wealth, power, popularity, and fame”.

The priest is a "pointer" to a transcendent, a "cipher", subtly calling humanity--too often bewildered and lost in a world that most of the time sees only itself--to be mindful of God who dwells in its midst. The priest, just like Christ and his Church is what John Paul II called a “sign of contradiction”. He is meant to be a reminder of what is "different", what is "other", what is true, and good, and holy.

“His life is not like that of others, and different are his ways”.

At the same time, my spiritual director would also caution me that there are two ways of being such a reminder of transcendence. The first is by looking like it; the second is by being it. The first is external; the second is internal. The first manifests itself in words and actions; the second lies deep in our hearts, like a seal imprinted in our souls. It shows itself outwardly, but only because it dwells in us, inwardly. The second, if it’s real, shows itself externally; the first, if it goes no deeper than an external show, isn’t real, but a fraud.

The difference between these two is so vividly portrayed in the contrast between the Pharisees and Jesus in today’s gospel reading. These teachers of the Law, these supposedly righteous men, drag a woman caught in adultery, ready to stone her to death.

For all their pretensions of righteousness, however, the Gospel tells us that it wasn’t really the Law they were interested in, nor the injustice done to the woman’s husband, nor the scandal she caused. In fact, they weren’t really even interested in punishing her. All of that was a façade. What they were truly interested in was to trick Jesus into destroying his reputation, by doing either of two things.

If he condemned her, she would be stoned to death. People will begin to doubt him as a righteous man, especially since he taught forgiveness and compassion. On the other hand, if he forgave her, he’d be breaking the Law which commanded punishing adultery.

If he condemned her, he would be branded a liar; if he didn’t, he would be encouraging the violation of the Law. Either way, he would be branded a false teacher; either way his reputation would suffer. Then perhaps, they’d finally be rid of him. People would no longer look up to him and admire him.

And that’s what the Pharisees were really concerned about, for what mattered to them most was to look good before people, to be thought devout, righteous, and holy in the eyes of others. Never mind if in the eyes of God, they weren’t being true. To look good on the outside was enough. Never mind what they truly were on the inside.

Legend has it, that when Jesus bent down and wrote on the sand, he began writing the sins of the Pharisees who had dragged this woman. One by one, he wrote the sins that they thought they had hidden from God, and from themselves. And one by one, to their horror, Jesus showed to them what they really were: whitewashed tombs—clean on the outside, rotten on the inside. And one by one, these proud and arrogant men, shamed into staring at the ugly truth about themselves they thought they had kept hidden, dropped the stones they had picked up.

“His life is not like that of others, and different are his ways”.

True righteousness is found within. It does show itself on the outside, but it always begins from the inside. True faith, true religion, is also that way. Our calling is to follow Christ with sincerity of heart, with a genuine faith, with an authentic righteousness. There’s already too much in the world that's phony, too much that's fake. Christ invites us to be the real thing, and to live truly good and righteous lives.

For those of us who seek to follow in Christ's footsteps even more closely--seminarians and priests--this challenge has an even greater urgency. For unless we are careful, we may wake up one day and realize that we have become the very Scribes and Pharisees. It isn’t enough to look pious, devout, spiritual, and holy; our piety, devotion, spirituality and holiness must be genuine. Hypocrisy has often been the millstone tied around the necks of those of us who call ourselves "leaders". We must dare to be different!

It isn’t enough for us to be priests in the eyes of the world, we must be truly priests in the eyes of the only one who ultimately matters the most, God who has called us to follow in the footsteps of his Son.

“His life is not like that of others, and different are his ways”.

"The Kingdom of Heaven is a condition of the heart." (Friedrich Nietzsche)