Sophomoric Homiletics: Tolerance

What follows is the essay from which I drew my homily for the oral portion of the final in our late vocations N.T. class. First the two readings are given (cut/pasted from the ESV … take your own translation as needed). Note that the audience to which I was aiming was the class and not a general congregational talk.

Two readings: John 8:2-11

Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. So what do you say?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away one by one, beginning with the older ones, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.”

And a second selection Romans 14:

Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since she gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.

When casting about for a topic for this talk, Fr. Andrew suggested that the theme for this months newsletter was tolerance. So when considering tolerance, the above passages seemed relevant. Why? Webster gives this (one of its definitions anyhow … and the one which applies) as “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own.” It might be noted there is a modern cultural push to redefine tolerance as celebration and not merely sympathy or indulgence regarding practices differing from our own. Tolerance as discussed below does not go so far as to suggest celebration. What then does the above tell us about tolerance? How do they, if they do, connect? (find the rest below the fold)


In our first class opening the study of the New Testament, we received a very interesting set of instructions on the social anthropology of Honor/Shame (H/S) societies. This is the description that anthropologists use for the first century Middle Eastern world in which Jesus and his disciple/apostles lived and breathed. This is also the description used to describe 70% of the modern world, basically all of it that is not the North/Western European enlightenment influenced modern cultures, which includes of course us. This setting is instructive as we examine the situation in which we encounter Jesus here.

We find Jesus in the temple, instructing the people. A group of scribes and Pharisees approach in order to challenge him. Challenge (and response) is an important part of the H/S system. One of the salient details H/S cultures is that honor challenges only occur between peers. Here Jesus is teaching in the temple and these Pharisees arrive to challenge him and his position. Their and Jesus actions collectively indicate that they each respectively acknowledge the other as social peers, and we shall see the audience (which is how these challenges are judged) standpoint Jesus emerges the winner of this challenge. The surrounding people’s reaction is required in this in that is how challenges are resolved. That is to say they are not resolved by interactions between the protagonists but in by the response and judgment of the community.

For their challenge, they bring a particular woman forward. This woman had been caught in flagrante in the act of adultery. H/S cultures are organized (in part) with the goal of eliminating non-chaperoned contact between persons of the opposite sex eliminating any situations where any improper contact at all is even possible. This is done to a degree and manner that we in our modern, very sexually forward and permissive, society would find repressive. However, it is not seen in that way from within the assumptions and mores of those societies. Adultery therefore is not just two adults married by not to each other having sexual intercourse but is a situation which is logistically much much harder than in our society. It is not something into which one “falls” accidentally.

The challenge as set forth by the Pharisees and scribes is that the Law as given in the Torah (Leviticus 20:10) offers that the person committing adultery must be put to death. It is not clear whether the stoning suggested by Moses was kinder or more cruel than the local custom, but H/S cultures almost universally take family and clan boundaries very seriously. The points is that it is highly likely that nobody in the crowd felt that the punishment was unjust or beyond the pale, much the reverse they felt it the norm, proper, and required to keep their society in its proper mode. In this challenge, the Pharisees challenge Jesus to explain how he would deal with her and her transgression in the context of his teaching.

Jesus’ response was muted. He bent down and wrote in the dirt with his finger. What did he write? John does not inform us, either he does not know. At the very least the actual text is unimportant to the lesson. But as might be expected, the crowd and Pharisees pressed him for a explicit response, which He provided. When it came His response threw something of a wet blanket with respect to their anticipation of a communal execution. The “let him be first” injunction might be taken as possible indication that the throwing of the first stone was something of an honor … and in this case an honor that nobody was in position to rise to take. Realization of this ended the honor challenge offered by the Pharisees decisively in Jesus favor and ended the spectacle of execution as well. This passage ends with Jesus confronting the accused woman. He asks her if any of those who would condemn her remain. To her negative response, sends her away with, “go, and from now on sin no more.” For myself, the liturgical mantra Lord have mercy (3x or 12x) echoes unsaid in the air as an likely response or attitude on her part as she departs. As well, the benediction Jesus gives the initial Scriptural model for the Sacrament of Confession. Repentance, forgiveness of sins, and the injunction to “go and sin no more” is what we work through during Confession.

St. Paul in Romans 14 is speaking of who those who are stronger in faith and further along in their spiritual development should approach and deal with the weaker in the flock. The particular topic in the background here was a burning issue between Jew and Gentile in the early church and discussed in some detail in Acts. Jewish Christians followed dietary laws and were circumcised. The question for the Gentile Church was how to deal with these customs and this praxis. Additionally, much of the meat in the pagan world was consumed after it had been offered in and for pagan religious rites. St. Paul points out that these gods were ephemeral and not divine. Therefore the meat was meat. Yet for a person unconcerned about that because being “strong in faith” he could consume pagan offerings without confusion there was a problem in that this might lead one weaker in faith astray. Ultimately he notes, eat or not eat but whatever you do, the point is that the reason you do or not flows from your devotion to the Lord.

As noted above, Jesus was preaching within an H/S cultural universe. Two of the important differences between that culture and ours concern who they viewed individuality vs group and wealth vs honor. It is our personal reaction to think of self before those groups we belong to. Ego dominates in our culture where in those cultures the first thoughts (and second and third as well) in a situation is how that event or situation reflects on us as an individual. What should I do? How do I think about that? How does that affect me? For an H/S member this is not the case but the inverse, I and me is replaced with we and us. The priorities we put on individual are placed on the group. In our society wealth and (individual) professional occupation determine our place in society. The H/S society did not derive status directly from wealth but by honor and class.
The groups to which a person belongs can be seen as an ever enlarging set of concentric circles each of which contains more and more people. At the center is oneself, moving out one has those to whom one is closest such as the nuclear family residing at your residence with you, then extended family or friends. Further out we find groups circles including co-workers and members of other groups to which you belong like your local parish. Further afield are people who follow the same hobbies or other pursuits. Going further we have community, state, and other larger allegiances.
Jesus had a radical message which if/when followed transformed the H/S society … but not by moving it toward an (our?) individualistic one. His message was to re-define group and how honor and and status are defined and obtained. Groups that had been defined by family, clan, and profession were reset. Let the dead bury the dead from Luke 9:60 is just one example of Jesus radical re-alignment of family ties replacing them with, in the example above, by putting our hand to the plowshare on behalf of the Kingdom of God. Jesus did not only suggest replacing familial commitments with Church but additionally further enlarged our ties to groups further afield by expanding what is meant by neighbor in the Levitical “love thy neighbor” commandment. Neighbors to whom we owe such love and charity are not just limited to family, clan, and those with whom we share common ties but instead this is expanded to include our enemy and those who hate us.

Our natural ordinary stance is to be most tolerant of those transgressive behaviors the further “out” away from the center one goes. While one can tolerate (or ignore) transgressive behavior in a casual acquaintance (or someone you don’t even really know) but one does not behave the same way when confronted with the same actions or beliefs which we perceive as self-destructive when they are held by one’s children or spouse.

In our Western world and specifically within our American culture with its legacy of self-reliance and rugged individuality our governing public customs toward each other lend themselves to keeping a well defined and significant distance. We don’t want to “embarrass” our neighbor by really talking about (or heaven forbid) pointing out unasked perceived problems. The question, “How are things?” is a rhetorical formulaic question and a response which includes a litany of personal woes and issues instead of a vanilla affirmation that your world is just dandy is a faux pas. But this makes it more difficulty to express charity toward our neighbor as it makes our neighbor less willing to receive or admit that it is needed (or is available).

However, as noted our Orthodox church is rooted primarily in non-Western individualistic cultures. “How are you?” is not a rhetorical question and unprompted personal plain spoken observations into another’s state are more normal. Interactions normally found only within families in Western individualistic societies move into larger settings, the parish for example. Recall where Jesus suggested the replacement of family devotion with devotion to God (and His Church). Those of us who are from (or being acclimated to) the Western individualized culture can take a lesson from these practices as they are a good lesson on how to correctly approach to tolerance and charity to neighbor.

A second practice on tolerance and charity here is encapsulated well by Orthodox tradition. The emphasis of “sinners, of whom I am first”, is the correctly emphasized as the starting point. Tolerance as noted above is how we deal with practices and beliefs held that disagree with our own. St. Paul repeatedly reminds us how frequently our own practices and actions disagree with those which we know are correct. How do we deal with those sins, which are by far the most important and should dominate our struggle? The means and methods and advice which we follow regarding our sins are exactly the methods we might use with our neighbor. Recall the lesson from John. Do I want to get stoned for my transgressions, which are the log in my eye as compared to adultery which is aftera ll the speck in her eye? Well, no. We’d all rather be remanded to repent, go, and sin no more. If this is the advice we’d want to follow how can we not do likewise with our neighbor (who includes those who hates us).

Tolerance is not indifference. Tolerance flows from charity. Tolerance requires me to pull my neighbor close to us and to use the same practices and importantly the same patience and understanding that we day after day and week after week yield to that horrible horrible sinner who looms so large in our life, that is to say, ourself.

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8 comments

  1. Boonton says:

    Question: Might this incident have been a political challenge as well. Correct me if I’m wrong but weren’t all executions required to be carried out by the Romans (or at least with their permission)? Hence all the shuttling back and forth they do with Jesus. The request to stone the woman might have been a challenge to Jesus to incite revolution. By authorizing the stoning Jesus would be allowing the Jews to follow their law as if they were not under Roman occupation. Much of Jewish history traced Israel’s problems to the willingness of Jewish leaders and people to placate the demands of pagan neighbors and occupiers.

    Perhaps the challenge was more about testing Jesus to see if he really was willing to put lives at risk in a revolution. Picking up the stone would have meant, then, taking up arms with the Roman occupation. Not picking it up would have implied a willingness to live with the Romans. Something, maybe, the Pharisees received no end of grief from the more radical Jews over.

    His response, then, dodges their trap. Rather than endorse the compromises the Pharisees had made to maintain political power, he offered a condition to meet before they could begin stoning (find one without sin to cast the first one). The Pharisees perhaps, then, didn’t really want to stone the woman either. They wanted to see Jesus squirm.

    Possible?

  2. The points is that it is highly likely that nobody in the crowd felt that the punishment was unjust or beyond the pale, much the reverse they felt it the norm, proper, and required to keep their society in its proper mode.

    …and this is the kind of society you admire? Because they’re “happier?”

    Tolerance requires me to pull my neighbor close to us and to use the same practices and importantly the same patience and understanding that we day after day and week after week yield to that horrible horrible sinner who looms so large in our life, that is to say, ourself.

    I find the whole notion of sin, as used here, to be abhorrent. What a terrible lens to see the world through! Think of love, of compassion, of generosity, of responsibility. But sin? That creates a guilt- or shame-centered psyche that leads to a number of problems, both personal (self-loathing, addiction, acting out, hypocrisy) and interpersonal (projection, scapegoating, etc.)

    I think the evolution from H/S societies to our modern one is an enormous step forward.

  3. Boonton says:

    I think the actual historical incident might have had different dynamics to it but there’s a reason the story has stayed with us. Not only that but among the various Bible stories and even among the stories about Jesus this one seems to be very memorable.

    I suspect the reason is that tolerance here is a variation on the Golden Rule. Are you willing to throw the first stone at yourself? If not then why be willing to throw it at another? Hence the statement ‘let he who is without sin….’. In other words you should give others at least as much slack as you give yourself, and you probably give yourself a lot more slack than you think.

  4. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    I don’t the interpretation of this as a political challenge works. The Sadducees were the group that had politically made compromises with the Romans in return for power. The Pharisaic movement was a ritual purity push with national/political goals in mind. They found Jesus a challenge to their position because he did not ask of people stricter adherence to ritual and set custom and praxis which was what they saw as the solution to the occupation/problem.

    I think I basically noted the golden rule in practice in my essay although not explicitly. That could be underlined as the principle in moving from “sinner, of whom I am first” to that as a model for treating with other’s behavior I find transgressive.

    JA,

    …and this is the kind of society you admire? Because they’re “happier?”

    I don’t “admire” them. I’m questioning the correctness of the assumption that our society is better. There is a difference. You’re not open to questioning your assumptions, apparently. Or at least you find it repugnant. Whatever.

    This is incoherent.

    I find the whole notion of sin, as used here, to be abhorrent. What a terrible lens to see the world through! Think of love, of compassion, of generosity, of responsibility. But sin? That creates a guilt- or shame-centered psyche that leads to a number of problems, both personal (self-loathing, addiction, acting out, hypocrisy) and interpersonal (projection, scapegoating, etc.)

    You think I should focus on “love, of compassion, of generosity, of responsibility.” OK, actually that’s basically right and we are in agreement. So, when you fail to do so … that what we call sin. What exactly then are you driving at?

    Look. My sin is my failure to have enough love, compassion, generosity, et al. Guilt/shame centered response is a Catholic response not an Orthodox one. We don’t focus on the sin, but on repentance and the “getting up and trying to get it right.”

    I’m trying to put across two points here.

    1. Tolerance is an expression of charity.
    2. That sort of charity requires us to pull our neighbor close to us … and to remember that the sort of response to our own failings is how we should respond to others (recall, ‘repent, get up and get it right’).

  5. Boonton says:

    Thing is that I just don’t get the sense that the Pharisees really wanted to stone the woman…..otherwise they wouldn’t have let her go after a long silence on Jesus’s part after making his statement.

  6. I don’t “admire” them. I’m questioning the correctness of the assumption that our society is better. There is a difference. You’re not open to questioning your assumptions, apparently. Or at least you find it repugnant. Whatever.

    Yeah, yeah. Just like ID is only “questions” about evolution. I’m not only open to questioning my assumptions, I make a point of it. And you are not only questioning whether our society is better, but often arguing that H/S societies are better.

    You think I should focus on “love, of compassion, of generosity, of responsibility.” OK, actually that’s basically right and we are in agreement. So, when you fail to do so … that what we call sin. What exactly then are you driving at?

    Dishonest. “Sin” is used to refer not to the failure to love, compassion, generosity, or responsibility, but to the violation of certain rules and norms. E.g. homosexuality, which is the opposite of a failure to love, is considered by many theists to be a sin.

  7. Mark says:

    Boonton,
    “otherwise they wouldn’t have let her go after a long silence on Jesus’s part after making his statement.” I got the sense Pharisees left with the rest of the accusers being convicted by what he said (and wrote).

  8. Mark says:

    JA,

    Dishonest. “Sin” is used to refer not to the failure to love, compassion, generosity, or responsibility, but to the violation of certain rules and norms. E.g. homosexuality, which is the opposite of a failure to love, is considered by many theists to be a sin.

    Wrong. That is exactly what is is called. Do you listen or read homilies on sin. No. You don’t. Do you read patristic writings on our failings and sin and how to deal with it? No. You don’t. So don’t go talking about what is and isn’t Orthodox teaching on sin.

    I’m not only open to questioning my assumptions, I make a point of it. And you are not only questioning whether our society is better, but often arguing that H/S societies are better

    Uhm, that’s what openness means. It means not rejecting out of hand evidence that suggests that H/S societies are in fact better than ours in some (many?) aspects. But rejecting out of hand is exactly what you keep doing.