One of the stories of Jesus that I always loved as a child was the story of the woman taken into adultery. I didn’t know what adultery was. I just knew that it was something so bad people could kill you for doing it, and that Jesus responded to it in a wholly different way.
Jesus went unto the mount of Olives.Let’s put John’s polemics against the Jews (the “Pharisees,” whom he sees a law-bound and devoid of all forgiveness, which is not at all an historically accurate view of the movement of the Pharisees) aside for a moment and return to it later.
2 And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.
3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,
4 They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act.
5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?
6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not.
7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her.
8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.
9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.
10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?
11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more. John 8: 1-11
What does this story mean? And the related teaching of Jesus, “Judge not lest ye be not judged”? (Matthew 7:1)
We are so ready to pass judgment because we are so sure we are right, because we see so clearly from within the confines of our limited perspective. It all looks so clear to us because we are looking at one small corner or section of the painting, not at the whole composition in all its glorious beauty. We confuse the part we see with the whole, not understanding that what may look one way in a small section is actually something totally different when seen as part of the whole. Our judgment may be and probably is a spiritual optical illusion. So better not to judge. And instead open our hearts to see wider and wider, that we might understand more and forgive more.
When others judge our full and rich lives from their limited external perspectives, we cry, “Foul!” We protest, “They don’t understand, they don’t see the big picture, they don’t see where we have come from or where we are in our life’s journey, or we are or where we are going.” Hillel teaches: “That which is hateful to you do not do to others.” Or in Jesus’ version of the teaching in the Hebrew scriptures: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” Don’t judge others from your limited perspective. Don’t condemn them from within your limited awareness of the justice and mercy of the One. Instead, open your heart to a larger justice, a larger mercy, a larger humility that acknowledges how limited our perception is.
This does not mean we should not fight to bring about justice in the world for our sisters and brothers wherever they may be. But we can do this without condemning persons. For what do we know of that justice? When we speak of condemnation and judgment, Hazrat Inayat Khan suggests we remember this: “There is only one thing that is truly just ,and that is to say, ‘I must not do this.’” (The Art of Being and Becoming, p. 208) Instead of condemning an action by another, use their action to confirm in your own heart the strength of will not to commit that act yourself. That is more powerful and will bring about greater change than any condemnation ever could.
So what about John and those Pharisees? Why does he find it necessary to condemn them, to judge them wrong to make himself and the fledgling Christian communities right? Because in his day the Jewish and Christian communities were so close, so entangled, that he could not step back far enough to see them both in a wider perspective—two spiritual traditions, one ancient, one just beginning, that came into being to help people follow the path of righteousness and mercy and glorify the One.
So when I read those portions of the Christian scriptures that are part of the anti-Jewish polemic, I try not to explain them away or merely condemn them. I try to say, I must not condemn another religious or spiritual tradition to reinforce my own.