Support us on Paypal
Contact Us
Watch 2022-2023 online sermons » Robert Barron » Robert Barron - Refuse Scapegoating Violence

Robert Barron - Refuse Scapegoating Violence

Robert Barron - Refuse Scapegoating Violence

Peace be with you. Friends, what an embarrassment of riches we have during this Lenten season. The Church always gives us magnificent readings to meditate upon. Last Sunday, we had what I call the greatest story ever told, the parable of the prodigal son. This week, we have this story from the eighth chapter of John. It's unusual, a bit, in John. This kind of story would seem more at home in, let's say, Luke's or Matthew's Gospel. But, we find it in John chapter eight, the story of the woman caught in adultery. And like the story from last week, it displays so many of the dynamics of the spiritual life, both in its dysfunctional mode and when it's properly functioning.

Now, listen to how the story begins. It's interesting and important. "Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. But early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and began to teach them". Now, whenever Jesus comes to the temple in the Gospels, it is not simply a pious, a Jewish rabbi, going to a place to worship and to teach. Because in the Old Testament we hear, it's in the tenth chapter of the prophet Ezekiel, that the "Shekinah," or the glory of Yahweh, the God of Israel, up and left the temple. The corruption of the nation and the temple itself have become so severe that God's glory up and left. And, mind you, went east over the Mount of Olives.

Well, we never hear in the Old Testament that the Shekinah of Yahweh returned to the temple, even in the time of Zerubbabel, after the return of the exiles, when they rebuilt the temple. They dedicate it, but we don't hear an account of the glory of the Lord returning. Okay, then there's the New Testament. Jesus, who's not just one prophet among many, not just a pious rabbi, but the very Son of God, whenever he comes to the temple, it is the God of Israel returning in his glory to this holy place and restoring it to its proper purpose. Notice the detail. They wouldn't have missed this. Well, Jesus went to the Mount of Olives, right? And then early in the morning, he came again to the temple.

Look at the topography. The Shekinah of Yahweh up and left the temple, going east over the Mount of Olives. Here's Jesus coming from the Mount of Olives, into the temple. It's the glory of Yahweh returning. Now, what was meant to happen in the temple, is the place where God and humanity came together. It's where a sinful humanity met a merciful God. Think of all the pious Jews over the centuries who'd bring their animals to offer sacrifice in the temple. Part of that was to seek reparation for sin and reconciliation with God. They would come before the mercy seat. That was the name of the area above the ark of the covenant in the classic first temple. Misery meeting mercy. That was the point of the temple.

Okay, with that in mind, now we turn to this strange story. "The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, they said to him, 'Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery... What do you say?'" Now, I think before I've spoken to you about the great twentieth century theorist René Girard, a Frenchman, but did most of his writing in this country. Taught at Stanford for a long time. Girard, I think, is one of the great theoreticians of the last fifty years. He saw something that is a dynamic in almost every human community. He called it the scapegoating dynamic.

When tensions arise, things go wrong, what do we do by a basic instinct? We begin to look for a scapegoat. Could be a particular person; very often, it's a group of people. "He did it. She's responsible. They're the ones behind our trouble". And the community comes together in a kind of ersatz unity around their common blaming of the scapegoat. Now, I submit to you, you can see this at the geo-political level, but you can see it around almost any coffee table, any conversation group. We human beings tend to engage in this scapegoating move because it makes us feel united during a time of crisis. Well, Girard thought this story was particularly clear in showing these dynamics. Scribes and Pharisees catch her in the very act of committing adultery.

Now think about that for a minute. One wonders, well gosh, where were they positioned? And how long had they been waiting and watching in order to catch her in the very act of adultery? How interested we are, fellow sinners, now listen to me, how interested we are in finding scapegoats. These are scribes and Pharisees, too. People that know the law. Yeah. You bet. Because we will use the religious law precisely to find and isolate and punish the scapegoat. "Well, look what he's done. Look what she's done. Can you imagine what these people have done? They're the ones, and I got the law to back me up". Did you ever meet somebody who uses religious law in a violent way?

I have. St. Paul knew all about it. Fellow religious sinners, now. I mean, we'll use whatever we got to express sometimes our spiritual dysfunction. Well, here's the scribes and Pharisees. Do they have any care for this woman? No. They're exposing her to death by making her stand out in public. And look at the Girardian thing again here, everybody. The scapegoat has to appear publicly. Otherwise he's not going to play his role. No, no. We all have to see, "Oh, look there. There he is. There she is". And so they make her stand out in public, and they knew the law well enough. "The law of Moses says we should stone such people".

These are massively aggressive people. Using the law, using if you want the great tradition of Israel, but in a deeply dysfunctional and harmful way. Scapegoating, violence, the scapegoating mechanism. What does Jesus do? When they kept on questioning him, "he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground". It's a very peculiar detail. The only time, by the way, in the Gospels, Jesus is ever described as writing anything. I think the first move he's making here is to break up the mob. See, how do these scapegoating mobs form? "Did you hear what she said"? "Yeah, I did. Let's tell him about it". And then, "Now there are three of us, and did you hear"? "Yes. And now, let's get four or five others involved".

The mob forms like a storm cloud, gathering strength as it goes. And let's be honest here, fellow sinners, when we see these groups forming, we hear this kind of gossiping and blaming going on, we want to get into the mix, don't we? "I want to get into that, and so I'll join that group, happily". Jesus' first move is a kind of disempowering of the mob. He refuses to cooperate with it. Mind you, really good advice when you're sensing one of these mobs forming; that's the best thing you can do, is bend down and write on the ground. In other words, is try to disempower it by your noncooperation with it. Now, what was he writing? We don't know. We're not told. I love how the great tradition, the Church Fathers speculate what he was writing: the sin of each person holding those stones, about to throw them.

I don't know if that was what he was writing. We're not told, but I like that suggestion. In other words, breaking up the scapegoating mob precisely by turning its energy against itself. Because then comes one of the most devastating one-liners in the Bible. "Let the one among you without sin be the first to cast a stone at her". So okay, off you go. I know the law of Moses said as such people should be stoned. I get it. I get the law. But fine, how about the first one among you without sin, you be the first one to throw a stone. And then it says, "One by one, beginning with the elders," they drop the stones and they move away.

Notice the dynamic. In the beginning, having caught her in the very act of adultery, "gotcha", then the storm cloud forms, and we can sense and hear and smell this angry mob forming, picking up stones. And then threatening Jesus. "Hey, what do you have to say about this? Are you with us? Are you against us"? Do you ever feel that way? When the scapegoating mob is forming, and I got to make a decision now, am I going to be joining these people, or am I going to resist them? Jesus resists them and then turns the moral and spiritual energy against them, and then causes thereby the cloud to break up. Beautiful example, by the way, of how nonviolence can answer violence. If he had, in righteous indignation, "I'm going to form my own mob and let's have a fight over this thing".

Well then what? The woman probably would've been killed and lots of other people too. But rather, Jesus disempowers the scapegoating mob and shows the typically divine way of dealing with this issue. What's his address to the woman? "Jesus straightened up and said to her, 'Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?' She said, 'No one, sir.' And Jesus said, 'Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.'" He disempowers the Girardian scapegoating mob. That's not God's way. God's way is the way of love and compassion, forgiveness and nonviolence.

Now, indifference to sin? No, the fact that this woman's sin is taken for granted in this story. Jesus is not making excuses for her, saying, "Oh, well don't worry about it. That's not really a sin, what you did". No. He's assuming, as everyone else did, that she had sinned. And so he says to her indeed, "Go and sin no more". See, because everybody, sin, in whatever form it is, is always a form of violence. It's always a form of rupture. Our English word "sin" is from the German word "sunda". The German word for sin is "sunda," and that's like our English word "sunder". To sunder, to break apart. And so sin is always a negative. It always has to be opposed. And Jesus opposes it, "Go and sin no more", but he does not sanction this scapegoating frenzy that we fall into so easily.

In fact, he gets in the way of it. He disempowers it. And now, remember the beginning. We're in the temple. The Shekinah of Yahweh, the glory of God, had left the temple. Why? Because of our stupidity and sin and corruption. Now in Christ, he came from the Mount of Olives, he came from the east, he entered the temple. He's the glory of Yahweh, now back in the holy place. And what's the temple meant to be? The place where God's love meets our sin. See, I'm not denying for a minute that the woman caught in adultery is a sinner. But she meets in the temple not scapegoating frenzy, not the violence of the mob.

It was Augustine who first used the phrase that I used at the beginning of this sermon. He said, "all that's left," at the end of the story, after the mob is broken up, "all that's left," Augustine said, is "misera et misericordia". Misery and mercy. That's what the temple was meant to be. When the glory of God dwells there, that's what it is, a place where the misery of our sin meets the misericordia, the mercy of God. And so our Church, everybody, ought to be that way. Way too often, even our churches become places of this kind of scapegoating violence. Too many people using the law as a weapon, as a tool to attack others. No, no, no. Break that up. Get in the way of that. And may our religion be a place where misery of sin meets the mercy of God, and may each one of us be an instrument of that meeting. And God bless you.
Are you Human?:*