Elders aren't excused from speaking out
As I was approaching what is popularly called "old age," I began to search the Scriptures for any encounters Jesus might have had with older persons. To my disappointment, I found none! At least, I found none in which one could categorize the person as someone possibly over 50 years of age. (The woman with "the flow of blood" in Luke 8:43 was "iffy," but certainly did not necessarily fit in the old age category.)
Recently, the reading for the Fifth Sunday of Lent this year caused me to stop in my tracks — and come at the question through a "backdoor" approach.
This reading is about a woman taken in adultery. She (unnamed) is brought to Jesus who is teaching in the Temple area. He is surrounded by many people who either have followed him or recognized him as a teacher who was becoming known in the villages that he had visited.
As Jesus is speaking to them, some Scribes and Pharisees bring this woman to him. She is left nameless but made to stand in the middle of the group who are listening to Jesus. Her accusers, interrupting Jesus, said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery." Then, quoting the law, they reminded Jesus that Moses commanded that such a woman be stoned.
We all know the story. Obviously, Jesus is being put to the test. The Scripture continues by simply describing Jesus' response, which is a bodily gesture and movement:
Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger. But when they continued asking him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let the one among you who is without sin
be the first to throw a stone at her." (John 8:6b-7)
Again, he bent down and continued writing, as gradually some went away, one by one, "beginning with the elders."
That phrase struck me! Why would the elders be the first to leave? Was it guilt with a memory of remorse or regret, which aging can so readily bring up in one's reflections of the past — especially if the guilt or remorse had not been dealt with earlier?
Or was it the wisdom that age had brought, because the older man had been opened to growth and had come to a new level of maturity about lessons learned from past behavior? Whatever the memory was — it made him leave quickly and quietly!
Or could it have brought up the guilt one feels from memories of infidelity to a faithful wife? Or could it have brought regret and pity for the woman who had to resort to prostitution to support her children or family?
In any case, I can't help but wonder if each of those men departing quickly had a new insight and feeling for the woman in this situation.
Jesus silently responded to their intrusive appearance and demanding questions with words unknown to us — written in the dirt in front of him. We have come to know that Jesus is the Wordmade flesh, and we have come to know and believe that that Wordis powerful, written and living. We must never underestimate the power of words!
Among the "motley crew" of elders, could there have been several who looked in lust, recalling memories from the past? Maybe one or two were recalling the virility and lustful drives that brought such pleasure in their youthful past?
Now, they are standing with a "righteous" group demanding that the woman be stoned for hersexuality and availability.Publicly today they want to appear to be followers of the law that punishes the woman, but leaves the man unscathed in reputation or from punishment of law. Were these men even thinking about alternative approaches to justice?
While nothing is mentioned in these Scripture verses about women being in the crowd, I can't imagine that women were notin close proximity, unable to speak, but watching and listening carefully.
My time in Papua New Guinea enlightened me as to the subtle power that women — who appear to be so subservient to the males— have in their own subtle but effective means of communicating.
From our perspective today, with the #MeToo movement alive and known in all circles, even church circles, do we women religious need to take more seriously the importance and obligation to use our voices and our writings to confront the problem of sexual abuse and the Church's role in "keeping quiet" — especially regarding the abuse of religious women?
Was Jesus subtly sending messages to all the older readers of scripture, in and through all the years to come, to reflect on those four words: "beginning with the elders," and inviting us to ask some questions about "Why the elders first?"
It caused me to stop and ask the question from the vantage point of my own aging! Age does not excuse me from maintaining my voice to speak up (and write up) for justice and right.
Jesus is still "writing" his words and leaving them in and around us in new ways, everywhere. The age of technology opens new avenues of receiving and responding.
Maybe my interpretation of "Beginning with the Elders," as I first read it, was an invitation for me to use these remaining days, weeks, months, years to be alert to the big issues in our world and in our church and to respond through words. As a seasoned missionary of many years— overseas and at home — this Gospel reading opened my eyes to read this passage as a new and updated challenge in today's world.
[Sr. Mary Petrosky is a psychiatric social worker and a spiritual director who has served her religious community, the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, in the United States, Australia, and Papua New Guinea. She also has served in leadership roles, including provincial of the United States, and she is a published author.]