Lenten Gospel Reflections, Day 33: Scapegoating and Prejudice

During this season of Lent, I will be working through Bishop Robert Barron’s Lenten Gospel Reflections (available through Word on Fire). Each day, I will share the readings and the reflection question, followed by my own thoughts.

April 3, 2022

1 Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple; all the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in their midst 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?” 6 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. 7 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.” 8 And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 9 But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest, and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.”

The Holy Bible (Revised Standard Version; Second Catholic Edition, Jn 8:1–11). (2006). Ignatius Press.

Reflect on the prevalence of scapegoating in contemporary culture. Think especially about the times when you have been guilty of singling out an individual or some group as a scapegoat.

I’ve heard this account referred to innumerable times to justify sin. “If Jesus didn’t condemn the woman caught in adultery, who are we to speak out about such-and-such a sin?” But note that Jesus didn’t say that adultery isn’t a sin, or that He didn’t care whether people committed this kind of sin or not. He explicitly commands the woman, saying, “do not sin again” (John 8:11). He isn’t sweeping her sin under the rug or turning a blind eye to her actions.

Now, the scribes and Pharisees were always on the lookout for ways to trip Jesus up (Luke 6:7, 11:54). But it wasn’t only Jesus who they were trying to catch in sin: nobody was below their exacting, legalistic gaze – not even lame people who had been healed just that morning (John 5:10). How proud of themselves they must have been when they hatched the plot that they carried out in today’s reading! Their society was in turmoil; they were supposedly God’s people, yet they were subject to the Romans – and the only times that they had been subjected to other rulers in the past was when they had strayed from God (cf. the entire book of Judges). So they sought a scapegoat. And with this plan, they couldn’t lose. They had lain in wait to catch this poor woman in the act, so whatever happened, they could blame her and lament the state of society. And Jesus would be caught between a rock and a hard place. He would only have two options when confronted with the dejected woman – to condemn her, which would be in direct violation of the Roman laws (John 18:31), or to contradict the law of Moses (John 8:5). But Jesus saw through their wickedness and chose neither and both. He chose neither in that He didn’t command that the woman be stoned, or declare her innocent of sin; He chose both in that He acknowledged her sin and forgave her. He didn’t play along with the scribes and Pharisees as they looked for a scapegoat. They were looking for someone upon whom they could dump all of their anger and hatred. Christ chose a better way: to identify the very real sin present in the individual, and to offer mercy.

I’ve seen many examples of scapegoating in modern history, in our culture, and in my life. Think about Germany in the 1930s. The country decided that the Jews were to blame for their economic woes. During this pandemic, the amount of scapegoating I’ve witnessed has been staggering. Everyone has a theory about who’s to blame for COVID-19. The Chinese people did it! The government did it! Obama and Hillary conspired to do it! The anti-maskers did it! And then when the lockdowns hit, another wave of scapegoating took place…this is Bonnie Henry’s fault! This is the fault of those who refuse to wear masks and can’t follow the rules! This is the fault of those who wear masks and show that we’re willing to put up with rules! The government wants to cover us all up and remove our identities, so they’re masking us up! And on and on it went – and goes. But in my own life, I’ve thought worse. I’ve made assumptions about people who I’ve never met based on my own totally separate past experiences. I’ve blamed people for things that they had no part in. And I’m a hypocrite, because I hate it when it happens to me. I thank God that I have the opportunity to examine my conscience and repent of my sins; I thank Him for the grace that He bestows upon us as He loosens the hold that sin holds over us as we become more like Him!

Lord, thank You for giving us the gift of the Sacrament of Reconciliation. Help me to identify the sin in my life. Let me not paint with broad strokes; let me not judge people unjustly. Fill me with Your love; let me see people as You see them – with love, with patience, with tenderness.


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