Sister Ana Cloughly, OSB reflects on the scripture readings: Isaiah 43:16-21; Philippians 3:8-14; John 8:1-11
As I was praying in preparation for this reflection, it occurred to me that when I read the Scriptures, I am only taking a first step in a process that brings the living word of God to the world, more specifically to my little piece of the world. What do I mean? Let me try to explain.
I want to focus on two truths in life. There are many truths in life but these two will frame my thought.
- If we don’t know history, we are doomed to repeat past mistakes.
- There are certain things we cannot teach our children. An example is they must experience a broken heart to know what it feels like.
I have a personal theory that each successive generation grows facets of wisdom that previous generations didn’t possess. Passing on these two truths is the first step in helping future generations as past generations helped us. But just blurting out these truths falls flat on young ears. As Truth #2 states, the young must experience life a little to appreciate for themselves the importance of the wisdom of previous generation. So, using the best of our human creativity, we develop stories that engage young ears, and often older ears as well, to impart wisdom.
I believe Jesus is using the power of stories as the first step in changing the world for the better. In the gospels for the 3rd, 4th, and 5th Sundays of Lent we have heard three different stories. Two Jesus tells and the third, he lives. Let’s review briefly.
3rd Sunday of Lent: The Parable of the Fig Tree. Neglect leads to death. Nurture leads to fruitfulness. The first step in our growing appreciation of the value of all creation.
Truth 1: We don’t really understand the consequences of neglect unless we have felt them ourselves. To be deemed unworthy and disposable is something we must experience. The same goes for experiencing nurturing.
Truth 2: Human consciousness is growing past ourselves. It is now that we can see creation as having intrinsic value beyond our own needs.
4th Sunday of Lent: The Parable of the Prodigal Son. The first step is letting go of what others think.
Truth 1: You know that feeling of defensiveness that arises when someone acts or speaks in a way that is demeaning or outright disrespectful? Yep, you guessed it. You must have experienced it along with the feeling of anger or resentment that rose inside you.
Even today in honor-based societies, dishonoring or embarrassing your parents can still legally be punishable by death or being counted as dead to the family, village, community, or country.
Truth 2: Although some cultures still see honor killing as an acceptable answer to perceived disrespect, most societies have banned the practice, opting for dialogue and efforts for reconciliation.
5th Sunday of Lent: The account of the woman caught in adultery. The first step is changing the focus from use, abuse, and condemnation to dispelling myths and cultural acceptability of the forces that drive the activity.
What is happening in this story about Jesus and related through St. Luke’s gospel?
Jesus has just spent some or all the night in prayer, signified by Luke mentioning that Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. Jesus returns the next morning to the temple where he is teaching the people. The scribes and Pharisees bring a woman they claim was caught in the very act of adultery. They tell him that in the law it is permissible to stone the woman to death. Jesus bends down and starts to write on the ground. When he does not answer the woman’s accusers, they repeat their inquiry.
Jesus stands up and says, “Let the one who has not sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Eventually everybody walks away leaving Jesus alone with the woman. Jesus asks her “Did no one accuse you? Neither will I accuse you.” Finally, he sends her on her way and tells her not to sin anymore.
Two things stand out for me in this story. First, there is the title of the story. St. Luke did not give this story its name. Those who copied it during the two thousand years since Jesus gave the story its title. What it reflects is a long-held belief that spans generations that the story is about a woman. It’s not though. It is a story about men, especially men in the religious leadership. Leaders who are eager to judge and condemn the woman and more importantly, to use her to trap Jesus so that he will be accused, judged, and condemned.
Jesus is left alone with the woman. In the time and culture of Jesus, women and men who were not married and of the same family were not allowed to be alone together. The dialogue between Jesus and the woman is significant but very short.
Who knows for sure if the woman was caught in the “very act of adultery?” Who knows if the “act” was consensual? What I can imagine is that the woman was terrified. I can only imagine her terror because I have never experienced it for myself. I’d like to say that no woman living today can know this woman’s terror, but I cannot. There are literally millions of women, men and children around the world who know this woman’s fear because they are caught up in human trafficking. What does this story have to do with human trafficking? A lot. The story is about men who used and abused this woman for their own ends, then discarded her to Jesus when their need for her was ended.
The story reveals our strongly engrained beliefs that we impose on the woman almost without us knowing it. Did you think this woman was a prostitute? How old do imagine her to be? Are you surprised that none of her family were there to defend her? When Jesus told her not to sin and sent her on her way, what kind of life was she walking back to?
Slavery has existed for a very long time. It is recorded in the Hebrew Scriptures as well as in the earliest forms of recorded history. The area of Eastern Europe referred to as Slavic countries are called that because that part of the world was a popular source of slaves. In Greek trade records, the popularity of these people for enslavement was based on their reputation for being “beautiful.”
The challenge in this story for us today is to be willing to uncover our mostly unconscious beliefs.
A few years ago, my children and I were discussing Benet Hill Monastery’s work in educating people about human trafficking. I was shocked to hear that my children’s thinking reflected the myths we have around prostitution is the United States: that it’s consensual, a sort of business the prostitutes should be allowed to engage in if they wanted, etc.
Truth be told, I unconsciously held these myths as well because TV shows have glamorized pimps and downplayed the physical violence. The laws prosecute the prostitutes, not the buyers and pimps. I also didn’t think that slavery was still legal anywhere, but I’m wrong about this myth too.
Today’s gospel doesn’t explicitly dispel the myths around prostitution. It doesn’t even mention it here. What it does expose is what lies hidden in our minds. If I don’t challenge the story-telling when commentaries depict the woman as a prostitute, sinner, and the root of the problem, and Jesus as forgiving her, then I as well as the commentators have a problem.
When I become aware, that’s when I need to ask myself the deeper questions. I need to ask myself, and I challenge you to ask yourselves, in what ways do I participate in the structure that reinforce the myths that allow human trafficking as sex trade or slavery to continue?
This story is a first step.
Truth 1: What is the history, in the Slavic nations, in the United States, in the world and yes, even in the Bible?
Truth 2: Individuals and countries are recognizing that each life has value. Slavery in all its forms is unjust. Everything from sex trafficking to paying a fair wage has been in front of our eyes in the past year. Now, how do I/we join in the effort to keep the progress going. Jesus lived the first step when he didn’t condemn the woman. It’s up to us now. We can make a difference.
Nothing will change until we learn the history or experience the truth for ourselves.