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Sunday, March 17, 2013

He reached down and touched the pain (Lent, 5C)

One of my favorite singer-songwriters is Greg Brown, who is married to another amazing singer-songwriter, Iris Dement. The one and only time I have been privileged to see Greg sing, he floored me with a song that his wife wrote, which he has not recorded. The song is called "He Reached Down," and it reveals the depths at which their upbringing, he the son of a preacher, she in a Pentecostal family, has shaped their consciousness and art into a stunning intuitiveness about the core of the gospel. In "He Reached Down," Dement grasps the motif of kenosis in three gospel narratives: the parable of the good Samaritan, the story of the woman caught in adultery, and the parable of final judgment in the end time found in Matthew 25. Since the story of the woman is the gospel for today, just take a look at how she frames the narrative, using "he reached down" as a refrain that describes, as the gospel does, the kenosis of God:
And then the Scribes in the Pharisees
Brought the adultress in for Jesus to see.
"Lord, she’s sinned, now the law says she must be stoned."
"If there’s a one of you that’s without sin,"
Said, "you can cast the first stone in."
One by one they left, leaving Jesus and the woman alone

(Chorus) Well he reached down, he reached down
He got right there on the ground
He reached down, he reached down
And he touched the pain.

"Well, no accusers are left that I see
And woman, neither do I condemn thee."
He reached down, he reached down
And he touched the pain.
When I first heard Greg sing this, I could not get over the simplicity and clarity with which the heart of this passage came through. But after listening to the verse about the Samaritan and this one, I was stunned by the turn at the end of the final verse, which to me was a homily all in itself.
In the Book of Life a story is told
About a traveler at the end of life’s road
He’s at the gates of the Kingdom and the Master says “Come on in”
For I was hungry and you gave me meat
I was cold you put shoes on my feet
When I was in prison there was you who come to see about me

Well you reached down, you reached down
You got right there on the ground
You reached down, you reached down
And you touched my pain. 
When you did it to the least of these
He said you were doin’ it unto me
You reached down, you reached down
And you touched my pain.
There is a lot written about today's gospel. It appears at beginning of the eighth chapter of John in the New Testament, but in none of the oldest manuscripts that we have of John. In one case (that I know of) it appears in an ancient manuscript of the gospel of Luke. Since it does appear in some important later manuscripts, including the Vulgate, it is considered a part of the canon. There are textual reasons (in chapter 8) that lead scholars to understand why a scribe might have inserted this story into John here. But other internal reasons, notably that the "to trap him" ploy, seen throughout the synoptics but only appearing here in the entire gospel of St. John, lead them to infer that this is a much later addition to the gospel.

But it is a great story. And in the context of this late Lenten Sunday, provides a lot to reflect on. In year A, when there are scrutinies, this is the Sunday when the raising of Lazarus is proclaimed. Jesus confronts death in death's backyard, setting the wheels in motion that will lead to his arrest a few miles away shortly afterward. And what strikes me most about this reading about the adulteress is the mortal danger that she is in. In the Lazarus story, Christ goes to the tomb. In the story of the woman taken in adultery, death comes to him. And as it will in the passion narrative, it comes in the form of capital punishment.


William Blake, "The Woman Taken in Adultery"
The image in this narrative is all too familiar because of the internet and growing awareness of sharia law and the way that it is carried out in fundamentalist Muslim areas. The brutality of stoning isn't something we have to read about in history books. It is a form of capital punishment. In the law, both the man and woman are to be thus executed for the crime, but in John's story, the man has apparently escaped. At least, he's not important to the explicit narrative. Bruce Malina, in his masterful work Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John, makes the point that like the rest of the last six of the ten commandments, the command against adultery is in place to hold together the social bonds of the community. Since family groups lived together, bound by intermarriage and the honor that children brought to the mixed families, adultery, theft, false oaths and other social breaches not only caused damage to the community in themselves, but also often created feuds and retaliation. Removing the cause, in this case, the offenders by their execution, stopped the retaliation in its tracks and "restored honor" to the community.

John Shea takes a different tack in his The Relentless Widow, the year C entry into his series on the "Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers." John's insight is always so very provocative. I love what he says about today's scripture, even though I can't find a trace of support for it in the usual places (like the Jerome Biblical Commentary). He picks up on Jesus writing twice on the ground with his finger when the woman is brought to him, and sees in the story an echo of the story of the giving of the law to Moses. The first time, Moses brought the commandments, written with God's finger, and sees the people worshipping the golden calf (committing "adultery," as it were, against the covenant) and he destroys the tablets. He goes back up to God, asking for retribution against the people, but God makes a new set of commandments and sends him back down to them. They will not get to see the promised land, and they are severely punished for their infidelity, but they are not killed en masse. So, yes, the accusers of the woman do cite the law of Moses, so, along with the writing with the finger (Ex. 31:17) of God, there is some internal evidence for this kind of an interpretation. And it is a very attractive one, especially as a contrast, because the woman's accusers see that infidelity (adultery) is something that the whole people is guilty of, and yet they have not been made to paid for it with their lives. The oldest see it first, and the situation is defused. With all the slaughter in the urtext, though, it seems a stretch to me to see this Gospel narrative as derived from the Exodus one, except by the starkest contrast, and in the slimmest of applications.

The thing I appreciate about this story from a literary point of view, is something that (if we didn't know better from internal evidence) fits with the arc of the Johannine narrative. It is the great arc of self-emptying that the Logos traces, from John's hymnic overture in chapter one in which "the logos became flesh, and pitched a tent in our midst," through the bending down of Jesus to wash the feet of the disciples at the last Supper, to the moment at which, in a single instant, he breathes his last and "hands over the spirit" from the cross. In that great downward arc, reversed in the resurrection and yet with the Spirit of Jesus remaining in the world to animate the mission of the church, I believe the "reaching down" of Jesus in this story keeps that momentum, as he, with great risk to his own safety, takes the side of the condemned woman, and stoops to write with his finger in the sand. As with the mud paste in the eyes of the blind man, one can't help but conjure Genesis here, and the thought that something new is being created from dust and tears.

What shines out of this gospel for me after hearing the first two readings and singing the psalm today is this: the past doesn't matter. Nothing in the past matters. Even our experience of God's rescue the past is nothing compared to what is happening now. 

First reading:

Remember not the events of the past,
the things of long ago consider not;
see, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
Psalm 126:
Although they go forth weeping,
carrying the seed to be sown,
they shall come back rejoicing,
carrying their sheaves.
Second reading:
Just one thing: forgetting what lies behind
but straining forward to what lies ahead
,

I continue my pursuit toward the goal,
the prize of God’s upward calling, in Christ Jesus.
And then, this glorious gospel story, with the woman whose past is very much in the present, with the breeze still bearing away the rancid reek of her mortal terror, brought to Jesus for a judgment which he, like the God he serves, refuses to give. Or rather, as John 8 says a bit later, "You judge by appearances, but I do not judge anyone. And even if I should judge, my judgment is valid, because I am not alone, but it is I and the Father who sent me. (8:15-16) 

So Jesus pronounces judgment, and the judgment is life for the sinner. I could not help but wonder, as I prepared for this Sunday's music and liturgy reading over these scriptures, whether Jesus might not have had a wink in his eye when he said to the woman, "Go your way, and do not sin any more." If anyone ever knew that this was a tall order, it was he. It may be, however, that the "sin" he had in mind wasn't primarily the sin of which she had been accused and nearly executed, but rather the sin she had so graphically seen visited upon her in its savagery. Maybe he was saying, "Remember how this feels. Whatever happens, don't be like your accusers."

"He reached down and touched the pain." God is reaching down, and we keep pushing God back up. God enters into our mess, pronouncing a judgment of mercy, and we push God back into heaven, and use God as an excuse for brutality. God reaches down to be one with us and make us one, and we push God back into heaven and use God as an excuse for exclusion, shunning, and excommunication. God reaches down to demonstrate the life-giving possibilities of loving self-abandonment, and we push God back into heaven so that we can worship riches and possession as divine attributes. God reaches down to suffer with us, we push God back up to heaven and sedate ourselves. We protest our patrimony of divine election, and God makes "children of Abraham" and brothers of Christ out of Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist—even atheist—stones.

"I am doing something new…Do you not perceive it?" Forgiveness of the past, opting for a new future without judgment and mortal revenge. Not substituting violent retribution for the forgiveness and equality of the dominion of God. Let's not think too small as we reflect on this gospel. Let's not over-spiritualize it. Real people are face-to-face with real death, no less than in the story of Lazarus, and it's death being inflicted by religious people over religious law. God's judgment is on that. The discernment of kenosis is mercy. How do we know if an action is divine? The answer is fairly straightforward. The action has nothing to do with death. It has nothing to do with preserving a past that chains, isolates, or condemns another person. It reveals a God who seeks worship less than solidarity, heaven less than earth, revenge less than restoration, power less than the "reaching-down" posture self-emptying love. "I am doing something new." Let's stop worshiping the old god. 

By the time Jesus finishes with what he has to say to those who are still in the Temple area listening (8:59), they're picking up stones again. They've forgotten about the woman. They've passed another death sentence which, to their confusion, will also be commuted to another day.