The War in Ukraine has revealed once again, the power of propaganda. One of the more disturbing aspects of the war in Ukraine has been to hear how powerful the propaganda machine has been in Russia. It has been disturbing to hear how, when people who have been hiding in basements in the cities with bombs falling around, when they have then contacted family members in Russia and told them what has been happening, they have been met with disbelief. Russia would not do such a thing. The control of the media and the counter-narrative in Russia is so powerful, that people living in Russia do not believe the first hand experience of their own family members in Ukraine.
Stories, and counter stories are very powerful. They shape our view of reality. We all live our lives within a story. Perhaps that is why a free press is so important… hopefully there are enough different voices within a free press that we can at least listen deeply to a story that may not always be the same as our own.
In reading the wider context of the war in Ukraine, it was also disturbing to read that there is also a religious dimension to the war. I understand that the Russian Orthodox Archbishop Kirril of Moscow supports Putin’s so-called special operation in Ukraine, and one of his reasons is that he sees it has a way of standing against the wayward morality of the West that he feels is spreading or creeping eastward into the territories of the Russian Orthodox Church.
It is at least helpful to hear that not all within the Russian Orthodox Church support the stance that Archbishop Kirril has taken. There have been some brave priests within the Russian Orthodox Church who have placed their own lives at risk by publicly disagreeing with him, which suggests that he must have some conception of what is happening in Ukraine, even if he does not know the full extent of it.
The case of Archbishop Kirril is one that is worth thinking deeply about. One of the grave dangers that it highlights is placing questions of righteousness higher up the scale of importance than questions of compassion and mercy. When one believes that matters of righteousness are of higher importance than compassion and mercy, then it is possible to justify actions that are decidedly uncompassionate and unmerciful in the name of righteousness. It is even possible to support the bombing of cities and the killing of civilians in the name of righteousness.
We can see these same dynamics at work in our Gospel passage for today. The Pharisees and Teachers of the Law in the Gospel stories were those who stood on the side of righteous living and righteous behaviour. Their obsession was obeying the laws of God, for they believed that if they did so, God would intervene on their behalf and restore the fortunes of Israel. They would no longer live under the oppression of a foreign power. For them, the stakes were high! Within their understanding, it was an imperative that all Jewish people needed to play their part. If one person did not play their part, God would not intervene on their behalf. This was the story, they believed in their heads and which motivated their behaviour.
And so in the Gospel story today, we read that these religious leaders brought a women caught in adultery to test Jesus. The text goes on to say that they were testing Jesus because they were looking for something to use against him. They wanted to find evidence that would discredit him and trip him up in the eyes of the people.
What was it about Jesus that disturbed them so? “Well,” as Steve Hackman writes, “...Jesus had been developing a bit of a reputation. Word was getting around of his bringing a little too much love, mercy and forgiveness to people… and not just to pious folk, but most especially to sinners.
For the Pharisees and Teachers of the Law, righteousness was of greater importance than compassion and mercy. And their insistence on the pre-eminent importance of righteousness, caused them to over-ride any sense of compassion and mercy. One translation of the Gospel passage reads as follows: “The scribes and Pharisees brought a woman along who had been caught committing adultery; and making her stand there in full view of everybody, they said to Jesus, ‘Master, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery, and Moses has ordered us in the Law (in other words in the Bible) to condemn women like this to death by stoning. What do you have to say?
Perhaps it is worth pausing at this moment to consider what this must have felt like for the woman. If she was caught in the very act of adultery, was she even properly dressed? Was she standing there naked with men leering at her in judgement? Even if she was given the dignity of being able to clothe herself, how must it have felt to stand with one’s deepest darkest secret exposed for everyone and anyone to see. Imagine the sense of public shame she must have felt. What if it was me standing there with my deepest darkest secret exposed for all to see and for all to judge. What if it had been her accusers whose deepest darkest secret had been publically exposed? How might they have felt?
And how did Jesus respond to her? Jesus does not neglect the call to righteousness. Jesus does not undermine the need for whole-some living, after all, at the very end of the story, Jesus says to her ‘Go, and sin no more’. Jesus is deeply aware that there are ways of living that lead to wholeness and life. And yet, even though Jesus affirms what one could call ‘righteous, or wholesome living’, Jesus affirms compassion and mercy as having a prior importance before righteousness. Go and sin no more are not the first words Jesus speaks to the women, but the very last words. In fact this Gospel story would suggest that true righteousness is only truly righteous when it is clothed in mercy and compassion. Without Mercy and Compassion, righteousness simply becomes another way of sinning, another way of falling short, another way of estranging us from God.
It is interesting that earlier on in John’s Gospel, in fact in the very first chapter, when John is setting the scene for us, he uses two key words to describe and intriduce Jesus: Grace and Truth. In chapter 1 verse 14 ‘We have seen his glory… full of grace and truth’. It has always struck me that the word grace appears first. While for the Scribes and Pharisees truth (as they understood truth) took priority over grace and could override grace, mercy and compassion, for Jesus grace comes first and shapes and forms our understanding of what truth is.
Archbishop Kirril, like the Scribes and Pharisees, appears to have got the order wrong. For Archbishop Kirril in Russia, his understanding of truth over-rides grace, mercy and compassion. To defend what he believes to be truth, he is willing to give his support to actions that are devoid of any sense of grace, compassion and mercy. And this appears to be the same trap that Vladimir Putin has fallen into. He too is operating from a story in his head. A story about the greatness of Russia that needs to be restored and for the desire for his name to be recorded in the annals of history as the one who accomplished this, the one who made Russia great again. This is Putin’s story. This is Putin’s truth that guides and motivates his actions. It is the propaganda that goes around in his own head. And for Putin, this truth has priority over the human qualities of grace, mercy and compassion. And as a result, Putin feels justified in overriding the values that make us most deeply human. He feels justified in displacing millions of people because there is a truth (or a ‘rightness’) in his head that he sees more important than compassion, more important than mercy, more important than grace and love.
And yet for Jesus, it is the opposite way around: Truth is only true when it is guided and shaped by, and clothed in grace, mercy and compassion. We have seen his glory, full of grace and truth.
We all live with our own sense of ‘the truth’. Values, perhaps stories that we buy into, that we believe to be true. Interesting the word truth in John’s Gospel is most accurately translated as Reality. In John’s Gospel, only Jesus is truly living in accord with the truth of Reality. According to John’s Gospel, the rest of us live in varying shades of darkness. We do not see reality as it truly is. As Paul puts it in 1 Cor 13, we only see in part. Our vision of Reality is shadowed and partial. Only Jesus sees with clarity. And according to John’s Gospel, Jesus’ perception of Reality is guided first and foremost by Grace, Mercy and Compassion.
What is the story of truth that goes around our heads… who are the one’s in the story of our truth, or our perception of truth who are the sinners, those who fall short, who do not live up to our high ideals, just as the woman in adultery fell short and failed to live up to the high ideals of the Scribes and Pharisees. What our passage is asking of us is not to give up our own deepest truths, but to make sure that whatever truth’s and ideals we hold up as true, are subservient to and shaped by, and clothed in grace, mercy and compassion.
And why is grace, mercy and compassion so important? Because the Reality is, we are all broken and incomplete in some way. Our brokenness and our incompleteness (our sinfullness one could say) may be different from the brokenness, and incompleteness and sinfulness of others. The truth is that none of us are living the perfect life. What Jesus reveals in this passage is that not even the Scribes and Pharisees were living up to their own high ideals. It turns out that they were not completely righteous either. It turns out that all this time, they were letting themselves off the hook for their own transgressions. Showing forgiveness and mercy to themselves, but unwilling to show the same forgiveness mercy and compassion to others who fell short in different ways from themselves. Jesus was simply inviting them to begin to extend this same compassion towards the women they had just humiliated who was standing in front of them.
What is the story of truth or rightness that we live by in our heads. Does that story of truth or rightness obscure our ability to see our own faults and weaknesses? And in the process does it over-ride our compassion, mercy and grace. Or, through the grace of Christ at work within us are we allowing grace, compassion and mercy to shape our understanding of what truth and rightness really are?
And lastly, perhaps a brief closing statement: Even this sermon/reflection is but a partial and incomplete reflection on the truth contained in this passage. This is not the whole truth… for I too, only see in part. Amen.