By Mark Bach
Tolerance is a hot topic these days. In the Gospel of John, 8:2-11, the Pharisees and scribes confront Jesus with a challenge. His response can teach us a lot of how to think of and approach tolerance. Tolerance might be defined as “sympathy or indulgence for beliefs or practices differing from or conflicting with one’s own.” There is a modern cultural push to redefine tolerance as celebration and not merely sympathy or indulgence regarding practices differing from our own. Tolerance as discussed below does not go so far as to suggest celebration. What then does that Gospel lesson teach us about tolerance?
At the beginning of the Gospel passage, we find Jesus in the temple instructing the people. A group of scribes and Pharisees approach in order to challenge him. For their challenge, they bring a particular woman forward. This woman had been caught in the act of adultery. In the society in which Jesus moved contact adultery was logistically much much harder to accomplish than in our society. It is not something into which one "falls" accidentally.
The challenge as set forth by the Pharisees and scribes is that the Law as given in the Torah (Leviticus 20:10) offers that the person committing adultery must be put to death. It is highly likely that in that culture nobody in the crowd felt that the punishment was unjust or beyond the pale, much the reverse. This response would have been the norm, proper, and required. In this challenge, the Pharisees challenge Jesus to explain how he would deal with her and her transgression in the context of his teaching.
Jesus' response was muted. He bent down, said nothing, and just wrote in the dirt with his finger. But, as might be expected, the crowd and Pharisees pressed him for an explicit response. His response threw something of a wet blanket on their expectation for a communal execution. The "let him be first" is an indication that the throwing of the first stone was something of an honor ... of which none were worthy ending the confrontation. This story ends with Jesus then confronting the accused woman. He asks her if any of those who would condemn her remain. At her negative response, He sends her away with, "go, and from now on sin no more.” For myself, this response brings two features of modern church practice to mind, namely the liturgical phrase “Lord have mercy” and the rite of confession.
If we examine the groups that a person identifies as a set of concentric circles, as they move away these contain more and more people. At the center is oneself, moving out one finds for example, your nuclear family, then extended family, circles including friends, co-workers, groups like your local parish. Going further afield are people one finds those who follow the same hobbies or other pursuits. Going further still we have community, state, and other larger allegiances. Our natural ordinary stance is to be most tolerant of those transgressive behaviors the further “out” away from the center one goes. For example, we can far more easily let pass sins of those far from us than those of our children and spouse.
Jesus had a radical message which if/when followed transformed society. His message that we redefine and reorder those groups mentioned above. Groups defined by family, clan, and profession were reset and diminished. Let the dead bury the dead from Luke 9:60 is just one example of Jesus' radical re-alignment of family ties replacing by putting our hand to the plowshare on behalf of the Kingdom of God. He taught that family and friends be replaced by Church and the Kingdom of God.
Jesus did not only suggest replacing familial commitments with Church but additionally further enlarged our ties to groups further afield by expanding what is meant by neighbor in the Levitical “love thy neighbor” commandment. Neighbors to whom we owe such love and charity are not just limited to family, clan, and those with whom we share common ties but instead this is expanded to include our enemy and those who hate us. So two things are going on at the same time here, at the same time we are re-ordering and shifting the group alignments we think of as “closer” or further from ourselves and we are at the same time pressed to love those groups which we find tolerance an issue.
There is one way in which tolerance is encapsulated very well by our Orthodox tradition. The emphasis of “sinners, of whom I am first”, is correctly emphasized as the starting point for tolerance. St. Paul repeatedly reminds us how frequently our own practices and actions disagree with those which we know are correct. How do we deal with those sins? Do I want to get stoned for my transgressions? Well, honestly … no. We'd all very much rather be remanded to repent, go, and sin no more. If this is the advice we'd want to follow how can we not do likewise with our neighbor (who includes those who hates us). Thus the model for how we deal with the sins of our neighbor is how we deal with our own, that is with charity and following Confession as a model.
Pulling this all together, we have learned that tolerance is not indifference. Tolerance flows from charity and tolerance in practice remembers.