Throw Down Your Stone

Flannery O’Connor, considered one of America’s greatest twentieth century writers, once wrote that “Conviction without experience makes for harshness.”  She spoke of the hypocrisy she’d seen within some of the congregation of her Catholic church, many of them who believed in what they were told to believe and used it as what she called “the poor man’s insurance system.”  Just in case what they believed was true, they would not go to hell.

A man who believed in what was told to him, lived in safety and never had much of a challenge to his faith, has never needed to examine his faith.  His understanding of right and wrong is factual and absolute.  The liar, drug addict, drunk and prostitute, these are all immoral people and their end is eternal destruction.  Their stories of how they became these things are all irrelevant in an unexperienced religious mind.  They are their vice, and they deserve their end.

This reminds me of the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery, grasped and laid at Jesus’ feet as he sat teaching in the temple courts at the Mount of Olives.

The crowds gathered.  The Pharisees and Jewish teachers of Biblical law walked in with the lady amongst their rabble.  John didn’t describe her much in his gospel.  I can only imagine a scared woman, hiding her face beneath her veil to mask her person, protecting the fragments of her reputation soon to be shattered by scandal.  Maybe she cried.  Maybe her tears bled through her veil, her heart pulsing and still alive at the thought of her coming end.  As a first century Jew in Palestine, an accidental sighting of the stones scattered about the Mount of Olives, she knew she would die. 

The Scribes and Pharisees demanded she stand next to Jesus.

“Teacher,” they said.  “This woman was caught in the act of adultery.  The Law of Moses commanded us to stone such women.  What do you say?”

They called him teacher, though they needed to believe he was a fraud.  They wanted to trap him.  A man who followed Jewish law by the letter, a true teacher, would command they stone her to death to purge the land and the people of its sin, and he would no longer be the compassionate Christ people were starting to believe he was.  Otherwise, if he told them to let the woman go and disregard their traditions, he was no teacher.  He was a heretic trampling on the traditions of God, and the zealots had license to kill him.  Either way, the Pharisees and Scribes knew this would be his end, the point where he was found out as the fraud they knew him to be.

But instead of answering, he stooped down and wrote on the ground with his finger.  No one understood his actions.  They persisted in their questions as he wrote, I can only assume growing frustrated in his silence.  Finally, he stood.

“He who has not sinned may cast the first stone.”

Again, he stooped down to the ground and wrote something in the sand with his finger. 

It was the old men who dropped their rocks first and walked away, followed by the younger men until not one stood and faced them.  He stood alone with the girl as the men walked away.

“Has no one condemned you?” Jesus said.

“No one Lord.”

“Neither do I condemn you.”

People often wonder what it was that Jesus wrote with his finger on the ground.  Church tradition holds that he wrote the names of all the men in the crowd who’d committed the same sin as the woman they’d pushed to his feet.  It’s interesting to note that the man she’d been caught with was himself not condemned.  Though not probable, it’s possible he could’ve been in that crowd holding a rock himself.  If she deserved death, so did many of the men in that hostile rabble.

I’ve worked with a lot of bad people in my life.  I’ve known drug addicts and dealers, prostitutes, men who’d flown women from foreign countries and trafficked them on Toronto’s cold streets.  I’ve met doctors who’d lost their licenses and their wives and children to medical grade morphine.  A needle to their arteries and the chemical became a miracle, melting the walls and their inhibitions and their sadness and their lives. 

I met an old man at a halfway house I once worked at.  A short white man with a thick head of grey hair and heavy moustache. 

“Hey there,” he said as he approached me at the front desk, and gave me his full name.

I introduced myself and shook his hand.

“Never seen you here before,” I said.

“Oh yeah just arrived.  Came down from Millhaven.”

“Penitentiary?”

“Yeah.  I got out on good behaviour.  I’ve been all around Ontario in all kinds of different prisons you know?  All the major ones for the past forty years.  It feels good to be out.”

I was taken by the man’s kindly smile and light demeanour.  He felt thoroughly Canadian.  We talked of his life, where he lived, his old job before he went to jail. 

“I gotta go back to the backhouse now,” he said at the end of our conversation.  “It was great meeting you Mina.”  I shook his hand and watched him leave.  I searched his name on Google after he left, and found an article written in the late 60s about a man who’d stabbed his girlfriend to death while drunk.  He was sentenced to life in prison.  The story didn’t match the personality I’d just met, but it was him.

Though I’ve never killed anybody, I’ve hurt people.  Though I’ve never trafficked drugs or women or lost my title or family to any sort of addiction, I’ve done some things in my life that I sometimes wish I could take back.  I have my own weaknesses.  The worst thing I could do would be to pick up my stone to throw it at another. 

But in the past, I have.  I’ve been judgemental of others.  I’ve asked why someone would do something so stupid, until I would do the same thing in the future.  I’ve torn down others with my words, not realizing that their actions were prophecy for my own.  It was my conviction, before experience, that made me harsh.  I was never strong.  Letting my stone fall from my clenched fist was a necessary step to building my character.

Like the woman thrown to Jesus’ feet, ashamed and scared, I’ve stood condemned by my guilt on so many occasions.  Reading the story of the adulteress at the feet of the man she called Lord reminds me my guilt was washed when my heart remembered its purpose in the eyes of eternity. 

I’ve done bad things in my past that I’m not proud of.  There are things I still struggle with.  I’ve lost more battles against my vices than I’ve won.  Still, I sat at his feet, ashamed and disgusted with the things I’d done.  The person I’d let myself become.

“Neither do I condemn you,” he told me. 

Who am I to pick up a stone?