When I was growing up there was a retort: ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me.’ I remember defending myself with it after being called a shrimp for being short and four eyes for wearing glasses. The fact is that the statement is not really true. Names can hurt. Sticks and stones can hurt physically for a while, but names, words used hurtfully or carelessly, insults, put downs, bullying sting inwardly and we remember them for a long time. For some reason we tend to retain the negative people say about or to us more than the encouraging words. Words nowadays have become weapons, our stones. It has lessened civility in our government and weakened respect in personal relationships. People earn good livings attacking others with the weaponry of harsh words. It is even worse with the anonymity of social media. To respect life and the dignity of all persons we ought not use words as weapons.
Yet some do throw words around in hurtful ways, like gossip when the talk derisively is about others usually with only surface information. Someone said, “Everybody’s talking. Some are taking his side, some are taking hers.” “Well,” said grandma, “are there any people left who mind their own business?” That is a worthy question to reflect upon these last days of Lent.
In the Gospel, the scribes and Pharisees used words destructively to judge and condemn. They seemed to care little for the accused woman but rather used her to try to catch Jesus. Either he would oppose the Law of Moses which allowed the punishment of stoning for committing the crime of adultery or the law of the Romans which did not. Is he a blasphemer or a traitor? The question was put to Jesus in legal terms but he answered in a moral challenge that tested the sense of justice. The law required that the person who witnessed the crime was to throw the first stone, then others could join in. “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”, Jesus answered. If the law is to be applied, let it not be by lawbreakers.
Words can also be used to get our attention, teach us lessons and warn us about ourselves. Some call it tough love, when out of caring concern we are called to account for what we do in a way that urges us to change for the better.
Jesus did that in the Gospel. He challenged in a way that they did not expect. “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” Zap. He hit them where it hurt in their own lives and consciences. To their credit unable to respond to the moral challenge the accusers dropped their stones and walked away. How easy it is to throw stones through words at others rather than look at ourselves and recognize our own need for God’s forgiveness.
Words can also be used to heal and offer hope, to bring perspective and help us cope. A college student named Tom had a large birthmark that ran from one eye down his face across his mouth down his neck to his chest. A happy and outgoing fellow, he was asked how he had overcome the emotional pain that surely was part of his youth because of the prominent birthmark. “It’s because of my dad,” he said. “He always told me, son, this –pointing to the birthmark – is where an angel kissed you because he wanted to mark you out just for your dad. You are very special to me and whenever we’re in a group I always know right where you are and that you’re mine. My dad told me that so many times that I even began to feel sorry for all my friends who didn’t have birthmarks.” Words used to bring perspective and uplift.
Words can also be used to comfort and encourage. How powerful are the words like: you look great, you did well, thanks, you helped me, I care about you, I love you.
A family moved to a new town. Tommy was nervous about entering the eighth grade in the new school. The first day of school he was told to go to Room 120. He went in and took a seat. The teacher came in and said, “As your names are read, please stand.” When the list was completed, she noticed Tommy was still sitting. She went to him and said, “Well, young man, what is your name?” Flustered he blurted out, “I don’t know, my name isn’t on the list.” The class roared in laughter. “Well you must be Tommy,” the teacher said, “the principal told me there would be a new boy today with a great sense of humor.” Words offered to comfort and encourage.
That is what Jesus did for the adulterous woman, gave her encouragement, a new opportunity, a new beginning. When she was left alone Jesus lifted his eyes to the woman. St. Augustine wrote, “I think the woman was even more terrified when she heard the Lord say, let him who is without sin be first to throw a stone at her, fearing now that she would be punished by Him, in whom no sin could be found.” But he, looking at her with the eyes of gentleness invited her to personally encounter him. He asked, “Has no one condemned you?” “No one Lord.” “Neither do I condemn you.” He invited her to conversion, saying: “go and from now on do not sin anymore.”
He invited her to turn her life around. He did not condone her sin or relax the moral standard. But he believed she was capable of turning away from her past and leading a new life. What hope there is in that for us, that we can turn away from our past sinfulness. We too can as the first reading from Isaiah put it, “remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not. I the Lord am doing something new.” The Lord invites us to come to him and begin anew. That is one purpose of the sacrament of reconciliation, confession.
Pope John Paul I wrote, “The fact that we may have had a stormy past should not frighten us. Storms that were bad in the past can become good in the present if they encourage us to reform and to change; they become jewels if they are given to God.”
St. Paul in the 2nd reading puts it so powerfully: “for his sake I have accepted the loss of all things and I consider them so much rubbish that I may gain Christ and be found in him.”
Did those who condemned the woman really get the message? Did she do as Jesus asked? We do not know. What we do know is that Jesus endured the Passion and died on the cross that we might have the opportunity to go and sin no more. May we in these last days of Lent recommit ourselves to be merciful in our words, respectful in our actions and grateful for God’s forgiveness. “Come to me you who find life burdensome and I will give you rest”, words of invitation Jesus offers to you and to me this day.