In the week of the Westminster attack I found myself marking a set of year 8 (12-13 year-olds) exercise books, responding to questions on John 8:1-11, often entitled, ‘the woman caught in adultery’.
A few weeks earlier we had been studying Jesus’ parables of the lost and I was surprised at just how many in the class, from a wide range of religious and non-religious backgrounds, were really quite indignant about the forgiveness which the younger son received, including that offensive party; it seemed so unjust to the hard-working elder son!
Studying John 8 together, me more-or-less acting what happened in the outer court of the temple, we imagined this woman being dragged, terrified and shaking, by a crowd of men who cared little for her. We focused on Jesus’ silent, measured response, as he knelt and ‘wrote’ in the ground, trying to imagine the effect of this action on the atmosphere, and what Jesus might have been up to.
As I talked I was very aware that in the class was one who has suffered severely for a misdemeanour in his past. And I wondered what he was feeling about Jesus’ response; I know the pain is lodged deep in this young boy’s heart. And there are pupils in the class whose home background, or religious upbringing, can be very harsh when it comes to responding to misdemeanour.
But the pupils began making links with others Jesus treated in similar fashion: Matthew the tax-collector, Mary Magdalene, Peter… We remembered, too, that forgiveness, compassion, are lauded in all the major religions as the ‘higher way’.
Returning to reading their written homework thoughts, I was deeply moved. Several had been sufficiently interested to go to the internet to research further on what Jesus had been doing ‘writing in the ground’. One turned up the historical detail that this was how verdicts were delivered – in writing first. Another, that it was the older men who had the right to start a stoning. Even more moving was the sensitivity shown to Jesus’ concern for this woman, the power that his grace, this undeserved kindness, would most likely have had to effect a change of heart, possibly a significant change to her whole life. And they were remembering the times in their own lives when grace had had a deeper positive effect than a harsh response of punishment would have done.
And I felt that there had been significant movement in the minds of these young boys: movement towards the beauty and power of forgiveness and grace over judgment and punishment. The possibility of embracing that ‘higher way’.
This time round only one individual was critical of Jesus’ response…
It is a privilege to read my pupils’ thoughts. Their writing also re-ignites in me the awesomeness of Jesus’ teaching.
I have been re-reading Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward. He writes about the less black-and-white attitude many of us enter in middle-age. But why shouldn’t the less black-and-white, often paradoxical truth possibilities, be put to our young people? In my experience, they ‘get it’ and deeply appreciate depth and complexity of thought, provided we give sufficient time to explain and to explore. John 8 teaches that infringement does not have to be punished, that justice does not necessitate punishment, for the goal is a changed heart, surely the greatest of all achievements.
Rohr suggests that spiritual growth is perhaps not so much avoiding sin, but growing through it. My supposition is that the woman of John 8 became a far more beautiful person, having sinned and so had that encounter with Jesus and herself, than if she had never made the mistake in the first place. Isn’t that just the truth about us humans? Mary Magdalene, Peter, Matthew, Zachaeus…
This week, teaching about Islam to the same class, we listened on-line to the imam at Finsbury Park Mosque who, in the most tense and violent of moments, spontaneously spoke and acted forgiveness and peace. I watched as the Muslim pupils sat a little taller, as they so often do when I draw out the beauty in their own religious traditions and community.
This month I lose my upper sixth, many deeply thinking individuals: Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Sikh, atheist, agnostic. My deepest prayer is that they, along with the many other thoughtful teenagers we have in our country, will be ‘yeast’ in the communities in which they find themselves in our country, aware both of the beauty that can be found in religion, and its complexities.