These are reflections on a sermon of the same name, by Jason Harris, pastor of Central Presbyterian Church, New York City, February 15, 2015.
We understand the text at John 7:53 through 8:11 to be about how we should not judge others. This is the story of the woman caught in adultery. The church leaders thrust her in front of Jesus, using it as an opportunity to try to catch Jesus in error, as they were ever doing. They looked for Jesus to affirm what they declared the law of Moses to be: that she should be stoned. Jesus said, instead, “let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” The accusers went away, starting with the eldest among them.
We all live before an audience, in our minds. The question is: who is that audience? In this story, the woman’s audience was first, her accusers. Then it was Jesus. As she saw herself in her accusers’ eyes, she was condemned. When she then saw herself in Jesus’ eyes, she saw that she was forgiven, and not only forgiven, but redeemed. In Jesus’ eyes, she was made whole.
It’s interesting how this fits with the evolving philosophy of consciousness. “Consciousness,” in this use, doesn’t just mean being awake and aware, but means having a self-perception that seems to lie outside the first-person singular perception. We can say “I” when we meet another like me, and in fact our self-perception is always a function of those others’. This is why our self-perception changes depending on who we are with. We don’t hold a constant consciousness of self. Instead, our consciousness of self is based on what we think another thinks of us, and it is that resulting image that forms our consciousness. It’s why our self-perception changes over time, and is different among different groups of people. In my mind, I am one person to my parents; another to my children; another to my friends. Indeed, my whole conscious life consists of trying to bring together these self-perceptions, to be a unified whole, with integrity.
None of this, so far, is controversial. Applying these ideas to the story of the woman caught in adultery brings insight to the concept of what we have come to think of as being improperly judgmental. What does it mean to be judgmental? Pastor Harris suggests that it is a tacit agreement; that “I won’t judge you if you don’t judge me.” The idea is that the audience is not one’s accusers, nor God, but instead, the consensus of society.
This is helpful to understanding the current rage against that which might be considered “judgmental.” In the story, the woman could escape the judgmental accusers by being told that she was God’s, not theirs. At least the accusers in the story attempted to found their consensus accusation in God’s law, before Christ set them aright about it. In our society now, there is no reference to God, in our accusations. How could that be, for example, if disapproval of gay marriage makes one “homophobic?” Or if public celebration of God makes one intolerant? Or if opposition to abortion makes one anti-women? In the story, the accusers’ consensus was based on a distorted understanding of God’s law. In current western society, accusation is based on a consensus that is only that: a consensus. We think things are right or wrong because everyone else (it seems) says so.
So, back to the current tacit agreement. “I won’t judge you, if you don’t judge me.” It seems open-minded, but it’s actually callous. With that approach, we’re saying “I care so much for my personal freedom that I’m willing to leave you to the ravages of your own bad choices.” Or, “I care so much about avoiding guilt for my own transgressions, that I’ll overlook yours, as well as mine.” This is craven. If the audience is God, and not other men, then we would recognize the abdication of caring for others, and that it is sinful.
The passage speaks to what real judgmentalism is. The same principle (that God is the audience) ought to mean that we are to be quick to restore the woman to God, not to estrange her from ourselves through opprobrium (or, if carried out as in the story, stoning!) Note that Jesus never said that adultery was A-ok; that it’s just someone else’s choice or lifestyle. He doesn’t say the law is wrong. The accusers should have responded to the wrong, but in love, rather than self-righteous rage. Jesus didn’t “tolerate” the woman. He acquitted her. Jesus acknowledged that what she did was wrong. He didn’t pretend she was innocent. The woman is redeemed because she saw her audience shift from the crowd, to Jesus.
So may it be with us all.