As with the woman from Samaria, here we have another unnamed woman. Another woman facing the judgement and prejudices of others. A woman forever remembered by something she was caught doing.
Please read John 7:53-8:11
This encounter is one that has puzzled many over the years. Indeed, its very place in the Gospels has been subject to debate. Some have said it wasn’t written by John because it doesn’t reflect his style of writing. Some have said it should be in one of the synoptic gospels (particularly thinking of Luke). Some manuscripts exclude the incident completely and it’s not even part of the lectionary of Sunday readings used week by week in the Church of England. But the fact we have this account at all would seem to indicate that the event actually took place and is a story handed down for us to learn from.
Once again, Jesus crosses cultural boundaries – and this time it happens in the busyness of a town, and not just that, but in the Temple itself. Not unusually, Jesus had been teaching the crowds. Bearing in mind, the cultural protocols, the Pharisees bring a woman to him. A woman caught in the act of adultery. From their perspective it was another attempt to trick Jesus and they quote Mosaic law which, echoing the Seventh Commandment (Do not commit adultery), dictated stoning to death as a punishment for sexual misdemeanours (Deut 22:13-30 – see also Lev 20:10).
Commentators have speculated that the particular piece of law which applies to this incident says: ‘If there is a young woman, a virgin already engaged to be married, and a man meets her in the town and lies with her, you shall bring both of them to the gate of that town and stone them to death, the young woman because she did not cry for help in the town and the man because he violated his neighbour’s wife.’ (Deut 22:23-24)
We can immediately think of another virgin engaged to be married, can’t we? And how the gospel accounts are at pains to tell us that ‘(Joseph) had no marital relations with (Mary) until she had borne a son.’ (Matt 1:25) Sitting alongside the clarity of their calling is the punishment of the day. Just think what would have not happened had either of them ‘lapsed’…
Note also how John’s account doesn’t tell us about the man involved. According to the law, he too should have been stoned to death. Where was he in all this? He’d been caught in the act of adultery too. Was he at the gate of the town meeting his fate or had he escaped the clutches of his accusers? And neither do we know anything about the woman’s betrothed or fiancé as we would call him nowadays. What about him? Did he know? Did he subsequently call off the engagement? Was he even one of the men stood ready to throw stones?
Betrayal in love produces all sorts of reactions and responses. Whether or not it was as ‘significant’ as the encounter we are considering in this story, if it’s ever happened to you in some form then you may have some understanding and empathy with the players in this particular scene. Perhaps you were ready to ‘throw stones’. Or carried the embarrassment of being made a ‘cuckold’. The shame of being caught in the act. Or hearing about it from others.
And as for the Pharisees: ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her,’ Jesus said. Reminiscent perhaps for his hearers of his own teaching on the subject: ‘Everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.’ (Matt 5.28) And which among us has never done that….
And to bring a contemporary parallel, Daniel Maurer writes ‘Where else do we see (primarily) men shaming and using women for purposes of making themselves look better? You don’t have to look far to begin to understand the recent phenomenon of #MeToo and how much Jesus would have been behind it.’
As the woman stood there, her accusers gathered ready to condemn and Jesus bends down and writes in the sand. The 4th Century bishop and hymn writer, St Ambrose speculates that Jesus wrote ‘Why do you point out the splinter in your brother’s eye and never notice the beam in your own?’
What thoughts does this story provoke in you about your own attitudes and responses to those who have done wrong in your eyes?
Was there a time when you were ‘condemned’ for something?
When you are ready move on to Part 2 of this story.