There is an old saying that goes, “People who live in glass houses should not throw stones.” This proverb has been traced back to Geoffrey Chaucer’s writings in the 14th century and has been used frequently, including by Benjamin Franklin who wrote, “Don’t throw stones at your neighbors, if your own windows are glass.”
The Jewish people, as represented by the Scribes and Pharisees in John’s Gospel, found themselves in a glass house with their own image reflected back to them in the person of the woman caught in adultery. This simple woman stirred up such discomfort and anger in them because they did not like facing their own unfaithfulness and sin.
The Jewish history of unfaithfulness to the Covenant is often depicted using the metaphor of an adulterous wife. In the book of Lamentations, we read a passage that describes the Jewish people’s experience of exile in Babylon, but one could imagine it being the feelings of the woman in John’s Gospel. Lamentations reads:
“How lonely she is now…Bitterly she weeps at night, tears upon her cheeks, with not one to console her…Her friends have all betrayed her and become her enemies…Her foes are uppermost, her enemies are at ease; the Lord has punished her for her many sins…All who esteemed her think her vile now that they see her nakedness; she herself groans and turns away. Her filth is on her skirt; she gave no thought how she would end. Astounding is her downfall, with no one to console her” (excerpted from Lam. 1:1-9).
The woman caught in adultery was intimate with a man not her husband, and the Jewish people were intimate with the idols of wealth, power and control. The woman betrayed Jewish purity laws, and the religious establishment betrayed the people they were called to serve. The woman had only a sheet from her bed of shame to clutch about herself, and the Scribes and Pharisees a robe of judgment and hypocrisy. In their midst was Jesus bending low, not to pick up a stone but to soften the stony, hard-heatedness of them all.
To “live in a house of glass” is to be fragile and vulnerable to stones of human judgment. To “live in a house of glass” is to look into a truth so clear and so shiny that instead of seeing through it, one sees only oneself. It is to recognize that I, too, am exposed, vulnerable and fallen. Internalized name-calling, shaming and labels lead to becoming the condemnation and judgment one hears, and living into those lies. A defensive posture of blaming and shaming, of assumptions and false conclusions, may succeed in hiding one’s insecurities, but it also risks breaking the glass and getting cut by the fallout.
Both sides needed to be stripped of old ways of living with the lies they had come to believe. Stones of judgment were not what was needed; mercy was. Jesus speaks words of healing when He said, “Neither do I condemn you.” In saying this, He calls to mind timeless messages of God’s mercy from Scripture, such as these from Hosea, Lamentations and Isaiah:
“I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart. The favors of the Lord are not exhausted, his mercies are not spent. They are renewed each morning, so great is his faithfulness…because you are precious in my eyes and glorious, and because I love you” (Hos. 2;16, Lam. 3:22-23, Is. 43:4a).
Jesus calls the woman, the Scribes and Pharisees, and us, to a better way than rules and judgment, a new way:
“Remember not the events of the past, the things of long ago consider not; see, I am doing something new! Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? In the desert I make a way” (Isaiah 43: 18-19).
The Scribes and Pharisees remembered the Jewish history of adultery, and dropped the heavy weight of judgment from their hearts and hands. The woman, remembering Whose she is and to Whom she truly belongs, dropped her heavy burden of sin and condemnation. All were guilty of adultery born of a deep, human need for love beyond anything human they had experienced. Jesus satisfies that hunger through the new way of mercy.
In his papal Bull for this Jubilee Year of Mercy, Pope Francis writes, “Wherever the Church is present, the mercy of the Father must be evident.” As Benedictines our lives of prayer and community are to exemplify the new way of mercy. It is our prophetic witness. In our humanness, how easy it can be to take a stone from the walls of this “House of Stone” and cast it at someone we do not understand, or at someone who reminds us too much of a shadow in ourselves. The more stones we cast, the more holes in our walls and in the foundation of our lives.
St. Benedict instructed his followers well and us in his “Tools for Good Works” when he wrote:
“Your way of acting should be different from the world’s way; the love of Christ must come before all else…Do not injure anyone, but bear injuries patiently….Pray for your enemies out of love for Christ. If you have a dispute with someone, make peace with him before the sun goes down. And finally, never lose hope in God’s mercy” (R.B. 4.20-21, 30, 72-74).