The subheading in my Bible says, “The Woman Caught in Adultery,” but it seems more appropriate to title her story “The Woman Accused of Adultery,” because she is only ever accused. The case of adultery is never proven against her, and her alleged affair is not even the point of this encounter between the scribes & Pharisees and Jesus. The point of the confrontation is to test Jesus, so that they might arrest him as a false teacher or a heretical prophet.
They arrest her in an attempt to arrest him.
They accuse her so that they might accuse him.
They spy on her, pull her from the home, stand her in front of all the men who have come to temple that day. They tell everyone to look at her and to secretly imagine how and why she might be sneaking off to have an affair. They make Peeping Toms out of every man in the temple. Then they accuse her without letting her respond … just to trap Jesus.
“Just look at this betraying woman, Jesus. If you know the laws of Moses well enough to teach in the temple, then tell us what consequence she should face.
“If you are indeed a prophet, one who has come from God to correct the deviant ways of God’s chosen people, then start with this woman. We’ve told you her crime, now prophesy how we should punish her deviance.
“If you are the Christ, the Anointed One, the Son of God come to begin a new kingdom where all are healed and fed and satisfied, then tell us if we should not ‘heal’ the kingdom by cleansing it of all women such as this.
“Tell us, Jesus, what do you say?”
And Jesus bends down, writes on the ground with his finger.
I wonder if he writes down Leviticus 20:10, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death.” Or Deuteronomy 22:22, “If a man is caught lying with the wife of another man, both of them shall die, the man who lay with the woman as well as the woman. So you shall purge evil from Israel.” I wonder if he writes these verses down, not to convict the woman of adultery, but to convict the scribes & Pharisees of applying the law of Moses inconsistently in their attempt to trap Jesus.
Maybe that’s not what Jesus writes on the ground, because they continue questioning him and pressing him to make a judgment against the woman. “Come on, Teacher, tell us what you would do in this case!” Finally Jesus stands up and says so famously, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
The woman was merely an object to the scribes & Pharisees, a tool in their attempt to trap and arrest Jesus. She was eye candy for the imagination in the midst of an all-male political scheme. The accusation, the way they brought her out in public, was entirely impersonal and indifferent toward her.
(In contrast, consider how Joseph — while engaged to Mary — chooses to handle Mary’s pregnancy and assumed affair very personally and privately, with a plan to “dismiss her quietly” per Matthew 1:19.)
But Jesus takes their impersonal and public accusation, flips it, and makes the conversation suddenly very personal to the scribes and Pharisees themselves: “Assess your own life first! If you are faultless, then you can throw a stone.” Some versions of this passage say that when Jesus bends down to the ground and begins writing again, he lists the sins of each of the accusers in the dirt!
Either way, his tone is clear: “What have you done? And you? And you? Is your life pure and clean, that you feel you’re in a position to judge this woman?! Are you really so determined to trap me, that you can humiliate this woman and not see in her the faces of your own wives or daughters or sisters? How are you able to disconnect yourself from this woman so completely that you feel wholly righteous as you publicly manipulate her life?
“You might as well put her on your TV screen: make her sing for her supper on American Idol, or watch her raise her children on TLC. Hold her up as an item for debate in Congress or as a faceless statistic to discuss in newspaper editorials, because she relies on welfare to get from day to day or she teaches her children to speak her native language as well as the language taught in school. Call her loose if she has more children than you would choose; raise your eyebrows if she chooses not to get married or have kids at all. Ogle at her because she doesn’t fit your standards of beauty; ogle at her because she does.
“What is the state of your life,” Jesus asks, “that you feel qualified to judge her? To judge him? To turn a critical eye toward someone you don’t understand and conclude that your life & your method is better? To objectify the person on the news or the person across the counter or the person you pass on the street?”
We are always judging, always assessing: who is like us and who is not; who fits with us and who does not; who should get our vote on American Idol for their singing talent; who is worth our tax dollars and our government programs; who should be allowed to be a citizen; whose affairs and personal business should make headline news.
We are constantly making value judgments — perhaps not intentionally or cruelly — but are we mindful of how often we judge persons and situations each day? Are we paying attention to the many, many ways in which we constantly objectify and cast stones?
But imagine: a world in which Jesus’ writing on the ground causes us all to pause and to walk away from our judgments!
Imagine a world in which we stop continually testing Jesus and testing one another to see who is worthy, who is acceptable!
Imagine, a world in which the accused and the stereotyped can walk away in freedom, in which we do not make someone else’s road harder to travel, in which we do not humiliate and objectify one another!
Imagine a world in which we accept that Jesus says to us, and to all people, “I do not condemn you. Go your way and live in peace.”
Just imagine! Leaving judgment behind and living in peace with the accused, with the accusers. Releasing others from our judgment, and walking in Jesus’ grace.
(From my 7/25/10 sermon at Grace UCC, part of this summer’s “HerStory” sermon series.)