In an interview shortly after his election as pope, Pope Francis was asked, ‘Who is Jorge Bergoglio?’ He paused for some time before answering, ‘I am a sinner.’ Not the answer the interviewer was expecting. Perhaps he wanted to know about the background of the new pope, something of his life story or even of his achievements, his road to pre-eminence. But Francis paused to think about that question and to give an answer that stressed something of our common identity. He had no intention of being singled out for honour or praise or glory. Instead he wanted to stress a truth that belongs to all of us. We are all sinners.
A woman caught in the very act of adultery is brought before Jesus and he is challenged to condemn her according to the Law of Moses: A woman, notice, not a man. This woman is bait to trap him. Is Jesus a law-abiding man or not? The scribes and Pharisees must have felt very confident in their actions. Jealousy and rivalry had prompted them to set up this scenario in the public square. Surely now they had their man. But they had omitted one thing from the set-up – themselves. All their fingers were pointing at the woman and at Jesus. Here she is. What do you say?
Well, Jesus has a finger as well and he uses it, not to point at others – that is rude. He uses his finger as a pen to write home truths in the sand. When pressed for an answer those doodles become powerful words. ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.’ Stunned silence. Then the eldest of the scribes begin to walk away and soon all the accusers are gone. Fingers of blame disappear. Voices of anger and threat evaporate. Jesus and the woman are left alone.
The public square is full of pointing fingers. There are so many sinners all around. We can point to them ourselves. But we do well to remember that we are not squeaky clean ourselves. Freed from her accusers the woman is not told to carry on, but not to sin anymore. It is advice for us today. Be on your way and do not sin anymore.
The world is full of sin and full of sinners, but harsh accusations alone will not cure it. Truthfulness and mercy must meet and when they do, freedom comes.
27 March 2023