Jesus was remarkably wise, one of the great philosophers of his time. He had great understanding of why people grow self-righteous. His work is rich in recommendations of how we might grow more kindly and empathetic. One of these lessons comes in the Gospel of Saint John. Jesus has recently come down from Galilee to Jerusalem when some Pharisees present him with a married woman whom they have caught having sex with someone other than her husband. ‘Teacher,’ they ask him, ‘this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Mosaic Law commands that such a woman must be stoned to death. What do you say?’
Jesus is being lured into a trap. Will he condone something that his society regarded as wrong? Or will he be as strict about legal matters as the Jewish authorities? Jesus doesn’t categorically deny the mob the right to stone the woman to death – but he adds one small caveat to this right. They can kill and destroy her to their hearts content if, but only if, they can be absolutely sure that they have first satisfied one crucial criteria: they have never done anything wrong themselves. Jesus doesn’t mean if they have never committed adultery, he means if they have never done anything wrong at all, whatsoever, across any area of their lives.
Only absolute moral purity grants us the right to be vicious, high-handed and unsparing towards our transgressors. An important principle of ethics is being introduced, we are to be counted as properly innocent only when we have done nothing wrong whatsoever, at any point and in any context. If we have transgressed in any field, even one very far removed from the crime at hand, then we are duty bound to stretch our powers of empathy, to strive to identify with the wrongdoer and to show them mercy and charity. We may not have committed that particular crime, but we are implicated in wrong doings more generally – and therefore must forgive.
Jesus responds to the Pharisees with what have become immortal words: ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone…’ The mob, understanding the rebuke, put down their projectiles and the terrified woman is spared.
The real target of this story is self-righteousness. Self-righteousness is the degenerate outgrowth of something otherwise extremely valuable, a desire to be in the right. The problem is that being in the right in some areas has a fateful tendency to lead us to see ourselves as morally blameless across our entire lives and therefore encourages a particular mean-spiritedness and inhumanity towards those who transgress in situations where we have been good. Our impeccable position in one area can give us grounds for viewing ourselves as morally blameless in and of ourselves – a stance from where extraordinary cruelty can follow.
Jesus’s point is that the surest way to be kind is acknowledge that we have been foolish and cruel at other moments, and in using that knowledge to foster compassion towards those whom it lies in our powers to ‘stone’. A world in which we keep our own wrongs firmly in mind becomes, paradoxically, a properly virtuous and humane place.