The older I get, the more I understand salvation in the terms which Thomas Merton used to describe it. “For me,” Merton said, “to be a saint means to be myself. Therefore the problem of sanctity and salvation is in fact the problem of finding out who I am and of discovering my true self.” [New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 31] The most pernicious effect of our culture is the way it thrives by alienating us from ourselves. Its materialism implies that we can only be ourselves by consuming things produced by others. Its ceaseless internet and broadcast noise distracts us from our interior lives. We don’t know who we are, let alone what we feel, what we think.
These problems are not new, of course. Take, for example, the problem of desire. The story of Susannah and the elders has long been used as a figure for what happens when the respectable folk repress their desires. One of Wallace Stevens’s great early poems, “Peter Quince at the Clavier”, talks in just such language:
Thinking of your blue-shadowed silk,
Is music. It is like the strain
Waked in the elders by Susanna:
Of a green evening, clear and warm,
She bathed in her still garden, while
The red-eyed elders, watching, felt
The basses of their beings throb
In witching chords, and their thin blood
Pulse pizzicati of Hosanna.
Because he is an artist, Stevens’s Peter Quince is present to what he is feeling. The “red-eyed elders” are not: the Bible story uses the almost comic secrecy and confusion as a way of showing the elders’ alienation from themselves: “Both were overwhelmed with passion for her, but they did not tell each other of their distress, for they were ashamed to disclose their lustful desire to seduce her.” [Susannah 1.10-11] The ugliness and violence to which the elders resort shows that there is nothing more dangerous in this world than a self-unaware person capable of wielding power. The elders’ desire for Susannah expresses itself not as love but as aggression. Because they do not know and accept their own feelings they translate their shame into threats toward the person who symbolizes what they desire. It’s as if they want to kill the person who arouses them.
This form of blaming the victim is not new. We see it all through the racial and sexual stereotypes of human history. We see it in church sexual misconduct. And we see it most potently today in the eighth chapter of John’s Gospel, the account of Jesus, the Pharisees, and the woman taken in adultery. Like the elders in the Susannah story, the Pharisees in this account are using their very respectability as a shield against their own interior lives. I wonder how Jesus would have responded if they had simply come up to him and said, “Jesus, help us. We want to sleep with women who are not our wives.” But of course they don’t do that. Instead, they bring in the adulterous woman. [Note: they do not bring the adulterous man! If they caught her in the act, there needed to be what we used to call a “co-conspirator”. Where is he in all this? I wouldn’t be surprised if he were one of the woman’s accusers.] They ask Jesus whether she should be stoned, in accord with Mosaic law. And he replies with this famous and inscrutable gesture: John tells us, “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.” [John 8.6] When finally pressed for an answer, Jesus responds with one of his most famous teachings: “‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” [John 8.7] Instead of blaming the one who elicits desire, Jesus dares to expose the interior lives of the Pharasaic accusers to light. Instead of focusing on “the other”, Jesus says, pay attention to what is going on within yourself. Instead of worrying about what all those other people are doing in their bedrooms, pay attention to what you are doing in yours. Instead of projecting all the things in yourself that you can’t accept onto women, people of color, gays and lesbians, and undocumented workers, come to terms with the parts of yourself that you do not acknowledge, let alone understand.
All of us do this, of course. The point here today, in this fifth week of Lent, is that Jesus points us to self-knowledge and self-acceptance as the keys to personal and spiritual wholeness. When I refrain from picking up the stone to throw at you, I do that in Jesus’s terms because I’ve come to see that the behavior for which I want to stone you is actually an expression of the aspects of my own identity that I want to refuse. And so in putting down the stone I’ve not only taken a step toward self-awareness, I’ve also taken a step into community. Because if we are one in our sinfulness we have the beginnings of solidarity with each other. Our oneness in sin is, as Bill Coffin used to say, “no mean bond.”
And then there is that mysterious gesture. “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.” He did it not once but twice. Every reader of this story has a different take on what Jesus was writing there, but I don’t think he was making a list of the Pharisees’ sins. I think, instead, he was looking into himself. Something about his encounters with women—here the woman taken in adultery, in Mark’s Gospel they Syro-Phonecian woman, not to mention Mary and Martha, Mary Magdalene, and a host of others—something about these encounters calls forth something in Jesus we have not seen before. I think that when Jesus wrote in the earth he was taking account of his own internal life, he was exploring and describing all of the complex feelings and thoughts that this woman and her predicament elicited. As she is “taken in adultery”, so Jesus is caught in the act of knowing, discovering himself. This gesture of looking inward and writing is something that the woman’s accusers and Susannah’s elders are incapable of. Their responses project outward and so result in aggression. Jesus’s response turns inward and so results in compassion. “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” [John 8.11]
As we head into Holy Week, let’s remember that it was precisely the kind of self-awareness which Jesus exemplified which drove his self-unaware opponents crazy and eventually sent him to the cross. The big Holy Week drama we are about to encounter essentially re-enacts the age-old conflict between those who know and accept themselves and so can come to accept others and those who don’t. The real power of the resurrection is the way in which it shows that God can love and bless everything that is true about us, even the things that we cannot quite yet love and bless ourselves. Let us join Jesus in looking inward and writing on the ground. If we do that faithfully, we might, in this new community built on trust instead of threats, go our ways separately and together and try to help each other sin no more. Amen.