Too soft on sin or too hard on sinners?

Yesterday a long standing family commitment meant I was absent for the 9:15am and 11am Mass. I did however celebrate the 8am Mass and preached this sermon on the need for balance between justice and mercy. The Gospel reading centred on the woman caught in adultery (John 8: 1-11)

A woman is caught in adultery but two people are on trial. Obviously the woman, but also Jesus. Because the Pharisees want to trap him. If Jesus declines to condemn her he is publicly shown to have disobeyed Jewish law. But if he condemns her, and this is why the Pharisees had not I suspect, he would fall foul of Roman law; which didn’t allow the Jews to stone people willy-nilly. Jesus would commit a civil crime. So which is it to be? 

Jesus disarms the trap, “Let one without sin cast the stone.” He turns attention from sins of others to sins of self, perhaps he was writing their sins in the dust, and his accusers drifted away in shame. Then he turns to the woman -a victim in their squalid little game.  “Has no one condemned you?” “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.” His compassion here is overwhelming. Jesus provides for her a fresh start with God. It is a foretaste of the grace offered to believers in the sacrament of confession. But note this does not mean he ignores or downplays the sin which was real.

We learn two things then. God is ever merciful but sin is a serious matter. Mercy and justice embrace in the Christian life. We must learn to hate the sin but love the sinner. A balance which has ever been the Christian way. 

Sadly that balance has often been lost in our day. Within the Church you tend to find the church split between two camps. The danger for the rigid and narrow is to be lacking in mercy and judgemental. The danger for the broad and easy is to be permissive and lacking in judgement. Like a drunken donkey too often the church lurches too far either way and struggles to find the balance that is necessary.

Our society also struggles in this regard being simultaneously too permissive yet, ironically, also far too damning and unforgiving. Permissive due to an anything goes mentality that denies God and the concept of sin. Yet cruel and unforgiving as seen in the loss of charity- the dwindling opportunities offered to prisoners, the judgemental attitude of the politically correct. Our culture is also confused and lurching between being Pharisaic on the one hand –hurling rocks of disapproval at those deemed incorrect. Yet also being very Roman on the other – happily embracing even deviant lifestyles as somehow normative or healthy.  

Neither approach is Catholic. We cannot be hard hearted and overly judgmental because this denies Christ’s compassion. Nor can we ignore the reality of sin for this confuses our understanding of what God has shown us to be right and wrong. Our  Christian duty then is to be black and white about what constitutes right and wrong yet gentle and more subtle with those who fall. It is, if you think about it, the polar reverse of the societal attitude! The world condemns individuals but is permissive on sin- because it cares more for ideals than people. Whilst the faith condemns sin but is merciful towards individuals, because it cares more about people than ideals.

As we embrace the introspection of Lent it is time to scrutinise our own attitude to sin and sinners? Are we too hard on those who disappoint? Or overly judgmental due to a superior attitude driven by egoism? Do we fail to be compassionate, tender and gentle with those who have sinned? Are we concerned for them and leading them, in love not judgement, to Christ? 

Or is our problem that we are too soft? Downplaying sin in our own life and in those we claim to love? Not daring to criticise the thinking of the friend considering divorce, saying nothing when children or their friends stay in our home sharing beds though unmarried? Hating sin and loving the sinner means you speak out when people are in danger. Never forget that evil triumphs when good people are silent. 

We being to see that living our life- hating the sin but genuinely loving the sinner is a tricky business. We easily get it wrong one way or the other. I don’t think we master it until we are genuinely holy, until the zeal, truth and power of the Spirit resides in us. We need God’s grace to discover this harmony and loving balance in life. 

Which brings us back to Lent. Don’t worry today about a dead woman and her adultery. Think instead of the only life that you can bring to. Your life. Which are the sins in your heart that choke out the Holy Spirit because you are too permissive of them? When are you bringing them to the confessional that you may go and sin no more? And having confessed will you accept God’s forgivness, giving up the self loathing and shame that the words of Jesus may resound within you- neither do I condemn you! 

Don’t be too hard or too soft on yourself this Lent. Be honest instead about your need for Jesus, about your need for his grace to help you achieve a balance between justice and mercy in life. 

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5 thoughts on “Too soft on sin or too hard on sinners?

  1. Isn’t it odd, in this great parable of mercy, the sinner offers no words of repentance, and Our Lord no words of absolution. The story ends elsewhere.

    1. Hence I say it contains a foretaste of the mercy of the confessional rather than claiming it as an act of formal confession

  2. Given that it takes two to tango, can anyone point to a single instance in antiquity of a MAN bring stoned to death for adultery?

      1. Whilst neither a Muslim nation nor – more’s the pity – rooted in antiquity, you can trust fanatic such as al-Shabab to highlight both the evils and the absurdities of theocratic governance. Yes, you are correct that under ancient Hebrew law (Leviticus 20:10) the penalty for adultery was death for both parties. Jesus might well have asked “Where is the co-accused?” Given your recent prison visitor’s experience, perhaps we might both agree that, then as now, justice and the !as are not necessarily the same thing – particularly where gender is involved?

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