An image from this week’s news has stayed with me, and penetrated below the level of my ‘conscious’ mind. It was the image of Farzana Parveen who was stoned to death for marrying a person whom the family thought brought shame to them. Her Father is reported to have aid “I killed my daughter as she had insulted all of our family by marrying a man without our consent, and I have no regret over it.”
The first thing that comes to me about this event is the amount of energy that goes into stoning someone. This is a very active kind of killing, and her family must have been very angry and very shamed in order for them to do such a thing. Clearly there is nothing about ‘not taking the law into your own hand here.
So straight away my mind goes to the Gospel stories. Can you imagine the father of the prodigal? In the context of Farzana’s stoning, how shamed must he have felt? His son says to him ‘Dad, would it not be better if you were dead now so that I can get the inheritance? Then he goes away. Can you imagine the return through the streets of the village? The father would have to be picking up stones to throw at his son as he returned, even if it were just so stop being shamed and ridiculed by all of the other blokes in the village.
Look what the army did to conscious objectors in the First World War. They were treated terribly and sometimes shot, because of the shame that they brought on the other soldiers who had decided to fight. We are not so far from that.
But Jesus’ story tells us that the father was already watching for the son’s return. That he ran toward him and dressed him with the dress ring and clothes and had a party. What kind of a person is Jesus to tell such a story, and to represent his Father like that?
How much of my life is structured around an parent who is critical, and against whom I have to defend myself? How much of my life is spent attuned to the ‘negative’ comments that then make me defensive? Why isn’t my life centred around the God who is my Father who is waiting to run toward me and put a ring on my finger and have a party for me?
What difference would that make? That is what takes a lifetime of being a Christian. It is not bout trying to be good, but about learning to live in the presence of a God who loves me as much as the Father in the story of the prodigal does. ‘Amazing love, how can it be….’ This is what was brought into high focus for me in studying Martin Luther. The aim of Christian life lies not in trying to be anything (good or bad) but in allowing myself to live tin the presence of the God whom we meet in the Gospels.
But then the second image rises in my consciousness. Do you remember the story of the woman taken in adultery who was about to be stoned? There lies all the pent up anger and hatred of the shame that this woman, like Farzana has brought upon her husband and the community. ‘they took up rocks to stone her’. And Jesus steps in between them and her. He is likely to be hit by a stray rock. He breaks into this very energetic action of killing someone else to stop it.
The people must have been very angry at him too for having done that. But he says ‘Let the one who is without sin cast the first stone’. So they all go away! Their anger at the shame that has been brought upon them, has been turned to their shame. And Jesus’ idea about how things should go is in the middle. What kind of a person is this who like the father in the prodigal story steps into the midst of the social arrangements of his own people and disrupts them in the name of God? As a parish priest I know what difficulty there is in stepping into already existing social arrangements and in doing things differently in the name of God.
But at the same time, as I try to do my job, I can never do it as one ‘who has no sin’. Every action I take is done as one who is aware of their own sinfulness, and frailty. Does that mean that I should do nothing at all? No. Does it mean that when action is taken it has to be done with an examination of my own motives? Yes. Does it mean that the whole community should be consulted through its representatives? Yes.
And there is another thing. When Farzana was stoned, it was so that some kind of order might be restored. The family said ‘You have broken the order of things. Our social fabric has been ripped. We are angry about that. As well, something must happen (like your being stoned) to show what happens to people who break she social order, and to help us to feel ‘restored’. That is what punishment does. It restores the order by causing pain to the one who has broken it. People who break the order are got rid of so that the rest of us can go on living in the order the way it was!
But there is another picture of justice. This is the kind of justice that is aimed not at the getting rid of the offender, but at restoring the offender to the community. “All praise to our redeeming lord who joins us by his grace, who bids us, each to each restored, together seek his face.” (Charles Wesley, Common Praise # 371). Gods actions toward us are never designed to push us away in punishment, but designed to hold us long enough to be restored to fellowship.
This is what is happening on Good Friday. Jesus is not being punished by God, but by humans in the name of God and of the social order. God the Father, in the Spirit holds him long enough for the resurrection to come, so that God’s justice, the justice that restores can be demonstrated. That is what is different about the Church’s justice and the world’s justice.
It is not that we do not feel shamed sometimes. It is not that we need to restore the social order by discipline sometimes. It is not that any of us does this without our own sin and the need to discern what to do for the best. All that we share with Farzana’s family. Where we are different is that the justice of the Church is exercised with the purpose restoring the rent fabric of our ‘body’. That is what Lent was (and is) for. That is what we offer to any of our members who will receive it or offer it.
The one who has really seen Jesus, has seen God the Father.