The Scarlet Letter is a fascinating exploration of the impact of sin and confession in our lives. It is not difficult to draw numerous parallels between this text and what God says about sin and our response to it, and to learn a great deal about ourselves in the process.
Because this story is set back in the 1700’s, some of the shock of the story is lost on us modern readers. A woman who has a child outside of marriage is not scorned as she once was, though perhaps a woman who is married and has a child by another man receives some public disgrace.
Even if we cannot relate entirely with the circumstances of the time period, the fact remains that we are prone to pass judgment on others, belittling them for our own benefit.
Though Hester Prynne is publicly shamed for her actions, repents, and is yet compelled to wear the emblem of shame on her breast, the Puritan townspeople cannot dismiss her past and allow Hester to live in redemption from sin.
Looking on as she leaves her prison cell, the townswomen converse:
“ ‘The magistrates are God-fearing gentlemen, but merciful overmuch . . . At the very least, they should have put the brand of a hot iron on Hester Prynne’s forehead. Madam Hester would have winced at that, I warrant me. But she,-the naughty baggage,-little will she care what they put upon the bodice of her gown! Why, look you, she may cover it with a brooch, or such like heathenish adornment, and so walk the streets as brave as ever!’
“ ‘Ah, but,’ interposed, more softly, a young wife, holding a child by the hand, ‘let her cover the mark as she will, the pang of it will be always in her heart.’
“ ‘What do we talk of marks and brands, whether on the bodice of her gown, or the flesh of her forehead? . . . This woman has brought shame upon us all, and ought to die. Is there not law for it? Truly there is, both in the Scripture and the statue-book. Then let the magistrates, who have made it of no effect, thanks themselves if their own wives and daughters go astray!’ ” (Hawthorne, 36)
Through these voices, we hear judgment on Hester. Though the second shows a modicum of mercy, the others come from women who believe they are in a position to pass judgment, distancing themselves from Sin in order to feel better about their own conduct. Further, they believe that they are in the position to suggest what Hester’s punishment should be.
In the book of John, we see Jesus’ response to very similar circumstances. The Pharisees bring a woman to the temple where Jesus is teaching, a woman caught in the act of adultery. They refer to the law transcribed by Moses calling for the woman to be stoned, trying to maneuver Jesus into a corner where they wished him to either refute Jewish law by letting her go or to refute Roman law which did not allow Jews to enact their own executions.
“But Jesus stooped down and wrote on the ground with His finger, as though He did not hear. So when the continued asking Him, He raised Himself up and said to them, ‘He who is without sin among you, let him throw a stone at her first.’
“And again He stooped down and wrote on the ground. Then those who heard it, being convicted by their conscience, went out one by one, beginning with the oldest even to the last. And Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.
“When Jesus had raised Himself up and saw no one but the woman, He said to her, ‘Woman, where are those accusers or yours? Has no one condemned you?’
“She said, ‘No one, Lord.’”
“And Jesus said to her, ‘Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more.’”
“Then Jesus spoke to them again, saying, ‘I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but have the light of life.’” (John 8: 6-12)
Jesus’ response is perfect. He acknowledges that while adultery is sin, as outlined in scripture, there is redemption in Him. The woman was not defined by her sin, rather, she was permitted to start anew walking in the light of Christ.
Jesus’ focus is not exacting punishment for sin. Jesus’ focus is on breathing life, his life, into the woman. In telling the woman to sin no more, He shows that his focus is on her future.
God has given us great grace and mercy, and by His example we ought to offer the same to our fellow man. This does not mean we don’t know sin for sin, but that our focus is on the future rather than the past.
What if we treated people with the same love? What if we, rather than chronicling some sinner’s past deeds, considered the potential they have in Christ.
This week, the challenge for us is to second-guess ourselves when we think and talk about other people. Are we gossiping as the townswomen did about Hester Prynne, distancing ourselves from Sin to appear more righteous? Or do we show mercy to others as God has shown to us, by allowing us to walk free from the sin of the past?
Thanks for stopping by, friends. Happy reading!