The Woman Caught in Adultery (John 8:1-11)
Through the written word and the spoken word, may we encounter and know your Living Word, Jesus Christ our Saviour. Amen.
Who is the shadow in the middle? American artist Daniel Bonnell painted an image of today’s scripture reading; here is a link (https://www.artpal.com/daniel_bonnell?i=8106-37). It shows Jesus comforting the woman caught in adultery, with the menacing shadows of her accusers in the foreground. English priest, human rights campaigner and songwriter Garth Hewitt wrote a song, describing this painting, called ‘The Shadow in the Middle’; it asks us to reflect on how slow we are to listen to other people’s stories and how quick we are to judge.
But first, it is impossible to overstate the serious nature of sexual misdemeanours, within the Jewish community of first century Palestine; they were ranked amongst the gravest of sins, alongside murder and apostasy, and there were severe penalties prescribed for anyone caught offending. That community was based on a shame-pride culture, so fathers and husbands would be anxious to make sure that their daughters and wives did not transgress in the slightest way and thus bring shame and dishonour upon the family. The system was also heavily stacked in favour of men; Judaism almost always viewed women as the instigators of sexual sin; the passions of adolescent males were attributed to and excused by the seductive attractions of women.
This is the background to this morning’s reading, in which Jesus teaches in the temple, surrounded by an interested crowd, when a party of scribes and Pharisees brings before them a woman they claim to have caught in the very act of adultery. They remind Jesus that the penalty under Mosaic law is death by stoning and ask Jesus to give his views on the matter; this was no hypothetical legal conundrum for Jesus, a woman’s life was at stake.
Clearly these men are not anxious to see justice done and the law upheld so much as to trap Jesus. If Jesus shows the compassion and mercy for which he has become known and forgives the woman, he will be denying God’s law and setting himself above that law and level with God. On the other hand, if Jesus confirms the sentence of death on the woman, he will be destroying his credibility as friend and champion of outcasts and sinners and risking confrontation with the Romans, who didn’t permit the Jews to sanction the death penalty themselves. Game, set and match to the Pharisees, it appears.
But wait! What is Jesus up to? He seems to be writing in the dust. We know neither why he did this nor what he wrote but it does give Jesus time to reflect and to consider his response, whilst leaving an awkward silence in which tension builds and which the Pharisees eventually feel compelled to break by repeating their question, determined to drive home their assumed advantage over Jesus.
Then we hear one of Jesus most well-known sayings, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Jesus cleverly saves the woman’s life whilst also apparently upholding the law and its deadly sentence. For the witnesses to the sin are required by law to begin the stoning, but they are also required to be honest witnesses, who neither connived in the sinning nor failed to try to prevent it. The scribes and Pharisees know that they are not sinless, in this and in other matters. They look to the oldest in their group, as was the custom, and when they turn away and leave, their hypocrisy revealed, the rest of them do likewise, followed by the crowd; Jesus writes in the dust again, neither watching nor delighting in their public humiliation.
For the first time, Jesus then addresses the woman, “Woman, where are they? Has no-one condemned you?” She says, “No-one, sir.” Jesus releases her with the words, “Neither do I condemn you.” These are words which troubled many first century Jews, and possibly are the reason why this story is absent from most original manuscripts of John’s gospel, for they may have been taken to condone her adultery when the prevailing culture was to demand punishment, penance and restitution. However, Jesus concludes the encounter with the words, “Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” Forgiveness does not mean that the sin, its consequences and the effects on its victims, do not matter; on the contrary, it means that they really do matter but that, by the grace of God, they have been set aside.
Let us look more closely at the woman. She may not be married but rather betrothed to a man; arranged marriages were common and girls would often be engaged to men they didn’t really know and be expected to keep themselves for their intended husbands. She has been caught in adultery and she knows that she will be punished, whilst the man with whom she committed the act has been allowed to escape. She has been arrested by men proud to be zealous enforcers of the law which, in this case, requires an execution by stoning, a humiliating, brutal and painful death, she is given no opportunity to tell her own story and is made to stand alone and exposed in the middle of a crowd of onlookers to await her fate, so she fears the worst and must be terrified; Jesus is a scholar of the law and will surely uphold sentence of death? What might have been our decision in his place, I wonder?
The tension and her fear rise as Jesus writes in the dust. When Jesus speaks, he talks of people casting stones at her. But something in the words of Jesus causes the scribes and Pharisees to turn and to leave and the crowd follows. She is left alone with Jesus and he sets her free. She must be overwhelmed with emotion, having moved quickly from the joyful embrace of her lover to the confusion of arrest and the fear of imminent death, then to the unexpected realization of freedom, filled with relief and with gratitude. She has been restored to the life she thought was lost and has been given another chance. And Jesus’ release is not conditional; he simply shows that he believes in her ability to respond to his gracious compassion and mercy by reforming herself and living a righteous life and empowers that with his love. She must have been walking on cloud nine as she went on her way and we can only hope that she did grasp this second chance.
And what of the scribes and Pharisees? I have, so far, painted a picture of wicked men, who perverted God’s law so as to make themselves look righteous rather than use it to glorify God; men so intent on plotting to silence a troublemaker, who threatened their comfortable lives, that they were prepared to abuse and to sacrifice a vulnerable woman to achieve their ends. But how might we have acted in their place? These men saw Jesus as a threat, certainly to their own agreeable situation, but also to the whole culture of that religious community. In their eyes Jesus was spreading sedition and heresy, overturning centuries of tradition and understanding and it was their duty to defend tradition and to uphold the law. Some of them at least may simply have been trying to serve God as best they could, even if they couldn’t see that their thinking was seriously flawed and their priorities terribly wrong.
In this encounter, Jesus again condemns the sins but not the sinners; he did not accuse the scribes and Pharisees of anything, but simply asked them to reflect on their own motives and actions and to pass judgement on themselves, rather than on the defenceless woman they had brought before him. For most, sadly, the experience probably only hardened their hearts and made them even more determined to find another, fool-proof, way to destroy Jesus, but there may have been someone among their number who did reflect, consider Jesus’ words more carefully and find their life changed for good.
And for ourselves, what might be our response to our own encounter with Jesus, through the words of this story? I should like to highlight just three areas – priorities, judgement and forgiveness:
- Let us make time to reflect and to question our priorities. To guard against becoming caught up in tradition, custom and practice to the point where we lose sight of what really matters: when we put our faith in rituals rather than in God; when we don’t value but use other people, particularly the vulnerable, to gain our own objectives and justify this by claiming that we are doing God’s will.
- Let us resist the universal human temptation to justify or to make light of our own sins by claiming that others also sin and that their sins may be worse than ours: when we misquote Jesus to excuse the unrepentant guilty rather than to forgive the humbly penitent; when we self-righteously demand standards of behaviour from others without listening impartially to their stories and without honestly judging ourselves likewise; when we’re tempted to look for vengeance rather than for justice.
Consider the words of Garth Hewitt:
We always know the guilty ones, we’re so quick to criticize. But who is quick to listen, and to ask the question ‘why?’ Looking through another’s eyes, I remember what you’d say. As I see you writing in the dust, and you turn your face away. Who is the shadow in the middle? Who will be the first to point the blame? You turn and look at the shadow in the middle; I see the shadow in the middle bears my name. (‘The Shadow in the Middle’ from the Album ‘The Road Home’ © 2003 Garth Hewitt / Amos Music http://www.garthhewitt.org/product/the-road-home/ )
- Let us take hope from the fact that Jesus condemns sin but not the sinner and that, until the day of final judgement, there is always the promise of redemption; a promise for which he laid down his life. ‘God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ Jesus knows what is in our hearts, and if we look to him and listen to him we shall know the absolute joy of his unmerited forgiveness for our sins, which will surely change our lives; if not yet, then I pray that the Holy Spirit will continue to work in us until it does.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.