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Goal of public humiliation is protection of status quo


Public executions, especially of political enemies (whether civil or ecclesiastical), always intend not only lethal vengeance against the challenger of the status quo but also the terrorizing of any witness who might be tempted to similar offenses. Public humiliation, character assassination, subversion of cherished ministries, and vocational destabilization are perhaps as lethal to the spirit as the stake and rack to the body. Such tortures of the loyal opposition do not leave untouched anyone involved in ministries similar to those targeted.

The first temptation, in the face of moral violence inflicted on friends and co-ministers, is to rage and retaliation. Or perhaps, for the more easily frightened, withdrawal behind closed curtains in hopes that the tumbrel will pass by one’s dwelling one more time. But neither vengeance nor cowardice, though understandable reactions, are worthy responses from the disciples of Jesus, the prophet who was executed by the combined forces of the religious and political establishment and who died praying for his executioners.

Recent events have driven me back to the gospels to ask what the life of Jesus can contribute to reflection on ministry to the morally marginalized of society and church. Clearly, Jesus taught the ignorant and cured the sick of body and mind, ministries to which no one could object (unless, of course, he did it on the Sabbath!) But the most remarkable aspect of Jesus’ ministry is surely that he reached out to the morally marginalized, to those the religious establishment declared beyond the pale: prostitutes and adulterers, extortionist tax collectors who were collaborators with the oppressor government, and even military enforcers of that government, as well as heretics and schismatics and pagans, to say nothing of gluttons and drunks. Jesus let these people touch him and he touched them. He was a guest in their homes and ate with them. But, perhaps even more shocking, he also forgave their sins without requiring humiliating and detailed confessions of guilt or even firm purposes of amendment. For this he was roundly castigated by the religious authorities, the guardians of public morality.

When we meditate on Jesus’ treatment of these “sinners” some strange, disturbing and consoling features leap to view. The story of the woman taken in adultery may be the most evocative. This is a story of which no one knows the original literary location, but it was so dear to the early church that it was inserted in a very unlikely place (John 7:53-8:11), lest it be lost. Here if anywhere we encounter “objective disorder” and “intrinsically evil acts.” Furthermore, there was no question at all about the woman’s “guilt.” She was apprehended in the very sexual act for which the Mosaic Law prescribed death by stoning. The ecclesiastical authorities try to implicate Jesus, the minister to the marginalized, in their righteous judgment, “just” sentencing and plans for execution. But Jesus just stoops down and silently writes on the ground (what?) and then, when pressed to clarify his position, says, “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.”

When the obviously convicted stoners slink away, Jesus is left with the woman. He does not lecture her on the sinfulness of adultery nor even ask her if she is guilty, much less sorry. Such humiliation and mastery of the “sinner” apparently holds little interest for Jesus who, in Matthew’s Gospel, applied to himself Isaiah’s description of the Suffering Servant: “A bruised reed he will not break, a smoldering wick he will not quench.” Surely this desperate woman is a bruised reed. Although he admonishes her to “sin no more” (which he surely says to each of us every day), Jesus does not extract from her a promise to that effect or even inquire about her firm purpose of amendment. Instead, he says: “Has no one condemned you? Then neither do I condemn you.”

One has to ask whether Jesus “confused the people” or even the woman herself by this refusal to clarify the intrinsic evil of her behavior and extract a self-condemnation before granting forgiveness, or his failure to publicly condemn the woman herself as a disgrace to Judaism. Did Jesus thereby undermine the moral authority of the law or only threaten its self-righteous guardians whose own behavior could not withstand his quiet challenge? Was Jesus’ preference for the one who had broken the law rather than the law’s enforcement, was his compassionate gaze into the heart of the frightened, suffering, marginalized woman rather than clinical examination and exposure of her behavior -- was all this sign of his own moral weakness, vacillation about doctrine, ambiguity about evil? Or was it the manifestation of the God he called his parent, the God slow to anger and abounding in kindness and compassion even in the face of Israel’s infidelity? Has anyone, down through history, taken Jesus’ behavior in this episode as permission from Jesus to commit adultery?

One could examine other instances: the woman who anointed the feet of Jesus (Luke 7:36-50) whom Jesus declared forgiven -- not because she groveled before the Pharisee host, publicly accused herself or repented, or hated herself too much to even enter the room in the first place or touch the Master (which Simon obviously thought should have been her attitude) -- but because he, Jesus, was generous and compassionate. In fact, Jesus says not that she was forgiven because she loved, but that she loved much because she had been forgiven! Who among us does not recognize that experience as our own? And are we not thereby obliged to offer unconditional acceptance to others, regardless of their offenses (which we can hardly judge unless we want to have Jesus speak to us as he did to Simon the Pharisee), as the gospel way to invite the people to repentance rather than humiliation, threat or expulsion?

Jesus even invited himself into the home of the hated tax collector Zacchaeus, not in order to convince him by moral argument that collaboration with those who oppressed Israel was objectively wrong and force him to reform, but in order to give him the experience of compassion and affirmation that would move Zacchaeus to examine his own life and decide what he was called to be and do (Luke 19:1-10). Significantly, we are not told that Zacchaeus gave up his profession (perhaps he could not, but he did deal with some of its issues, such as fraud). Jesus ends this visit by declaring that salvation had come to Zacchaeus’ house: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” Apparently such seeking and saving did not require public condemnation, shaming or ostracizing.

Jesus invited another tax collector, Matthew, into his inner circle of disciples, thus risking his own ministerial credibility by not only associating with the morally marginalized but by recognizing them as partners in God’s work. The religious authorities accused Jesus (to his other disciples, rather than to his face!) of eating with tax collectors and sinners. Jesus replied, “Those who are well do not need a physician, but the sick do. Go and learn the meaning of the words, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ I did not come to call the righteous but sinners” (Matthew 9:9-13). We are fortunate when we can honestly recognize ourselves among the sinners. Who among us can claim to be righteous? And in any case, it is very dangerous to do so, for it excludes us from Jesus’ compassion.

The gospels suggest that there was only one type of person for whom Jesus expressed moral repugnance and even contempt: the self-righteous who condemned others from a position of ecclesiastical power. We are not even told that the publican praying in the temple who begged, “God have mercy on me, a sinner” (Luke 18:13) made a firm purpose of amendment or reformed, but we are told that he went down to his house justified, while the Pharisee who thanked God that he was more righteous than the publican did not. Jesus castigates the whitened sepulchers (Matthew 23:27-28), those who bind heavy moral burdens for others to carry, who keep the minutest regulations of the Law while driving their neighbors to self-hatred and despair of God’s goodness, who marginalize and exclude from the table those they judge unworthy (Luke 6:41-42), their elaborate defenses against the moral gnats as they swallow the camel of religious abuse of the downtrodden (Matthew 23:24).

Public executions do make the witnesses reflect. But rather than being intimidated or terrorized or, even worse, driven to hatred and retaliation, we who mourn the sacrifice exacted of our colleagues in ministry need to return again and again to the gospel so as to pattern our own lives and ministries ever more closely on the life and ministry of Jesus who never encouraged condemnation, marginalization or humiliation of the other, even of someone who seems to be a “sinner,” but who commissioned his followers to feed and care for his flock even to laying down their lives at the hands of those who will claim to be glorifying God by executing his ministers (John 16:2). Perhaps there is no clearer vindication of one’s ministry than the fact that it associates one with the fate of Jesus.

Immaculate Heart Sr. Sandra Schneiders teaches at the Jesuit School of Theology in Berkeley, Calif.

National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 1999