When Religion Becomes Unhealthy

Sunday of Week 5 in Lent

Jn. 8:1-11

When a woman guilty of adultery was brought to Jesus by the Scribes and Pharisees they reminded Him that, according to the Law of Moses, she should be stoned but they wanted to know what He would recommend. His response took them totally by surprise.

“If there is anyone of you who has not sinned, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” Knowing they had been outsmarted, these self-righteous guardians of public morality, one by one, beginning with the eldest, melted into the crowd.

Both Jesus and the Pharisees belonged to the same religion. They read the same scriptures, believed in the same God, but how different were the results. One was cruel; the other kind. One was scheming and deceitful; the other open and honest. One was eager to condemn; the other to redeem. How could they be so different?

The answer has to be that for some individuals religion was unhealthy, because of the way they practised it. However ancient its traditions, however accurate its doctrines, however beautiful its rituals, any religion can lose its health and become sick. I think there are two warning signs of an unhealthy religion.

One is that we become increasingly conscious of the sins of others - and decreasingly aware of our own. Those Scribes and Pharisees who brought the adulterous woman to Jesus had conveniently selective memories. They could recall what Moses had said about the sin of adultery, but they had totally forgotten what the prophet Micah had written about the requirements of justice, mercy and humility before God (6:8). They were indignantly aware of the woman’s immorality, but were conveniently oblivious to their own pride and arrogance.

This does not mean that we are to close our eyes to the crime and corruption that surrounds us. It simply means that we should never lose sight of the fact that we too are sinners. We find an example of this in the life of Saint Paul. Writing to Timothy he recalled some of the tenets of the faith, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, I myself am one of the greatest.” When Paul wrote those words he was simply facing the truth about himself. He was a sinner, sharing the Gospel with other sinners. Paul had a healthy religious faith.

The second warning sign of an unhealthy religion is when we start caring more about rules than we do for people. The Scribes and Pharisees had a point. The woman had violated one of the Ten Commandments and the Old Testament said some harsh things about dealing with people who committed adultery. Jesus did not deny nor dispute this. His first concern was for the woman.

Rules and regulations are important. No society can function without them, but they are to be interpreted and enforced to the highest benefit of people. That is why they are written in the first place. Whether you are preaching the Gospel, practising the law, managing a business, or running a home we must remember that people are more important than rules. Certainly we must not throw out the rules, but we must apply them for the good of people.

In Jesus’ scale of values, people are more important to Him than rules. On one occasion, He told His critics that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. I have no doubt that He would apply that same principle to all of the Ten Commandments, to all the laws of the land, and to all the laws of the church.

We all know a physical check-up is a good idea from time to time. It is also a good idea to have a spiritual check-up now and again. Our religion can get sick, just as our bodies can, but Jesus is the Great Physician - an open and honest visit to Him in the Sacrament of Reconciliation can put the practice of our faith well on the road to recovery.

Holy Spirit, inspire us in this season of Lent to understand that we need a spiritual check-up, in preparation for our Easter celebrations with the risen Christ.