Monday of the 5th Week in Lent
Daniel 13:1-9,15-17,19-30,33-62; Psalm 23; John 8:1-11
I remember a trip I made some years ago with some friends where we were stranded at the airport due to our flight getting cancelled. As the evening deepened, more irate passengers gathered around the service counter and this group began to get more and more vocal. One of my friends felt the need to try to turn this into a social experiment and joined what he called the ‘angry mob’. He shouted from the back ‘We want compensation now!’ and very soon, the whole crowd started murmuring about compensation, much to the chagrin of the poor, helpless staff at the counter. We pulled our friend back but the mob had started moving and got angrier. It seemed to have a life of its own, like an angry animal that wants to go for the kill. Mobs are dangerous as those in it often give up their own individual thoughts for the mob’s and quite often, mobs ignore the humanity of those that they’re going against.
Mobs feature in both of today’s readings and they cause serious problems for the women at the centre of the narratives. Though the crimes of both are similar, the guilt of both women are quite different. But it’s the presence of the mobs and their role in the narratives that give us much to reflect about. I’d like to focus less on the guilt and the crimes but more on our response to them. We’ve been told many times in Lent not to judge – can we really put that into practice when egged on by a large mob or crowd?
I’d like to take a more practical view of this. Mobs as I’ve described them are bad as individuals can get swept up in the fervour and forget about their own independent thoughts. George Orwell in his novel 1984 called it ‘groupthink’. There’s a great potential to harm others because we can act quite irrationally, ignoring the humanity of others in the process. I can see two major steps in trying to get out of this problematic situation should we find ourselves in it.
The first is to actually realise that you’re in a mob or crowd and dare to step out of it. quite often, we don’t quite realise that we’re in a mob and we just trundle along, forgetting to think for ourselves before it’s too late. One has to be reflectively aware of the company that we keep (even our close friends can lead us into the dangers of groupthink) and realise that we should not always follow the crowd. And when we do realise where we are, we have to step out and either confront the crowd as Daniel did or step away. Daniel showed great courage to try to stop the proceedings and question the two men. Here’s where faith comes in – if we realise that we do need to step out and confront the crowd, we also need to trust that the Lord will provide the grace for us to do it with courage.
The next step is to see the face of others. The French philosopher Emmanuel Levinas wrote about face-to-face relationships that lie at the heart of ethics or how we deal with each other. By seeing the face of others, we cannot help but recognise their humanity and their kinship with us. The other person is like me (at least in some small way) and that realisation would call us to love, give and serve in whatever way that we can. It would be very hard to want to harm a face whose humanity is so similar to mine. Once we see the face of others, we would realise the ills of the crowd that we were in and treat others as they should – as people deserving of love and forgiveness.
Seeing the faces of others is at the heart of what Pope Francis is trying to tell us in his announcement about the Year of Mercy. He said that this year ‘should be a time of “joy to rediscover and make fruitful the mercy of God” by reaching out and offering “consolation to every man and every woman of our age.”‘ We’re all called to show mercy to others. Isn’t that what was shown in both readings? Mercy was shown in the form of a fair trial for Susanna. Mercy was shown in the form of forgiveness and the opportunity to convert for the woman in the gospel.
One final note about mercy and the face. Mercy is not about licence to be lax or overly lenient. Some might claim that Jesus was too lax in not punishing the woman who obviously committed the sin of adultery. However, he presumably saw the face of the woman and saw that what she needed most was mercy and the chance to convert. The latter was probably what she wanted and the Lord gave her the space so that she could continue her conversion without the unwanted distraction from the mob. The other thing was that the Lord wanted to teach the mob a thing or two about being overly judgemental and to reduce their tendency for groupthink. Both Jesus and Daniel showed us the fruits of seeing the face of others – allowing us to see the humanity of others, as God created them and not as how we choose to see them with our prejudices and biases.
Let’s open our eyes then, to see the faces and the beauty of the humanity all around us. Whose face do I need to see more clearly so that I can bring God to them better?