The story of the woman taken in adultery is often cited when people are talking about the church’s responsibility to offer discernment, or even judgment, in spite of Jesus’ explicit command not to judge (Mt 7.1, Lk 6.37). It is true that this story is often misused from the liberal end of the spectrum, and people forget the final line, “Go, and do not be sinning any more.” Let us not, however, omit a crucial part of the story. After all the accusers slink away, “condemned in their own consciences” as some versions say, Jesus says to the woman, “Who has condemned you?” [i.e., Who made themselves judges over you?]. “No one,” she said. “Neither do I condemn you. Go and do not be sinning any more.”
Jesus — the only human being qualified to judge (because of Who He Is) — here refuses to judge, even in a case where guilt is clear. If he refuses to judge, how dare we presume to judge? The point of the story must be that no one who is a sinner (and all are sinners) can judge another, especially if the only sinless one, Jesus, refused to exercise that role. Jesus refuses to play the judgment game. (See also Jn 8:15-16, 12.47–49 [and 3.17–18]).
Not that he will always refuse it, nor that we will not partake in the judgment (both in the dock and on the bench). But the Judgment is reserved to the End, the Last Day. At that time, not now, Jesus and his Chosen Ones will judge the world. And his Chosen Ones include the people of Nineveh, and the Queen of the South, as well as the Apostles. (Mt 10.15, 12.41–42, 19.28; Jn 5.22-24,29, 12.48). For the time being, the world judges wrongly (Jn 16.8-11), and Jesus warns us neither to judge nor condemn on the basis of partial evidence — for until the Last Day when all is revealed, we have only partial evidence, having, as Paul says, imperfect knowledge. (Mt 7.1–5, 12.7; Luke 6.37, see also Rm 2.1–5, and Jn 7.24.)
I served jury duty over the last several weeks, and one of the instructions the judge gave at the beginning of the case was that we were to form no conclusions until we had heard all of the evidence, and then to deliberate on the basis of that evidence. (The case settled before we reached that point.)
How much better the church would be if instead of condemning and judging others we looked into our own hearts and confessed our faults (which are many) to one another, seeking the help and support of our companions in pilgrimage? And waited in patience for all to be revealed?
Here is my prayer for the church:
What kind of church we are to be? Shall it be the “O.K. Club” or “St Saviour’s Hospital”? The church of those who are at ease in Zion, or those who dwell in the exile of Babylon? Will it be the church of the Pharisee or the Publican? Of those who bind burdens, or those who liberate? The church of Caiaphas, secure in his skill, or of Cephas, who knew his failings? The church of Paul at his worst, or Paul at his best? Will it be the church of those who close the door on others, or of those who are trying to get in? Will it be the church of those for whom the Decalogue, the Summary of the Law, and the Golden Rule are not enough, or of those who know how hard it is to follow even these high standards? Will it be the church of those who are prepared to cast stones, and were condemned by their own consciences, or those whom they accuse, and whom Jesus refuses to condemn? Will it be the church of those who sit in judgment, or of those who love much, and minister to Jesus by washing his feet with their tears?
I pray our church will be a wing of St Saviour’s Hospital. There are no outpatients there, and everyone who arrives is a terminal case: they die to self, in order to rise to life everlasting. For the church is not a society of nice people who obey the rules. The church is the Body of Christ. There is no salvation in the Law. None. The Law did not and will not save us. Jesus did and will.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG