THE WOMAN BROUGHT BEFORE JESUS
It’s not hard to picture the awfulness of the scene in John 8.
Morning in the Temple of Jerusalem; the heart of Jewish faith and history and most especially of its holiness. Jesus is by now attracting large crowds to what he has to say but he is suddenly interrupted mid-flow by a group of male religious leaders who manhandle a woman into the middle and make her stand there while everyone else is likely sitting down.
It is sometimes said she was then accused of adultery. In fact, the men around her condemn her for adultery. They do not provide evidence – the testimony of more than one witness. Nor is the man she was accused of adultery with brought before Jesus. There is no clarity round this incident, but it does not stop the men from reminding Jesus what the law of Moses prescribed for adulterers: that both parties should be stoned to death. It was an ugly and volatile moment, thrust on an unsuspecting Jesus. A frisson of ghoulish drama would have passed through the crowd.
The woman would have been terrified, humiliated, profoundly alone in a crowd and apparently hovering on the edge of life itself. Only, it wasn’t as simple as that. Jesus could not pronounce a death sentence even if he had wanted to. This penalty was reserved for the Romans to judge, as the death of Jesus himself showed. This was a set up. Agree with the penalty, and the Romans would be told about Jesus taking their law into his own hands. Disagree with the sentence, and Jesus would undermine the law of Moses and lose his moral standing.
The woman was a pawn in the game a group of influential men were playing. She isn’t given a name in the story. Some might think that dehumanises her even more. But there is another way of looking at it. And that’s a woman on a dubious charge of adultery being saved from every person ever after knowing who she was. It’s said the internet never forgets. Try being placed named in the Bible.
Jesus knew he had to respond. But first he doodles in the ground in front of him. This could easily have been left out of the story. That it’s included is probably telling us something. We can only speculate, but one effect of the action is to slow the drama down, putting Jesus more in control. It also gives him time to think and pray. We take a very different view of reaction time today. Any politician answering questions know they have to respond immediately. To pause and reflect for even a few seconds after the question is asked, to create silence, is presumed to show the question has you stumped. This has resulted in most people today feeling they have to answer a question quickly, to show how smart they are. But here, Jesus shows that delay is often wiser.
Jesus rarely went on the back foot when confronted. He was skilled at turning the tables: if you’re going to ask a question; I’m going to ask a question. And in doing this, he draws on the latent hypocrisy of the men: Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her. They could have argued back that: in that case, no-one can enforce law, but they would have been evading the question about their own sin in front of a crowd. They were also guilty in this whole set up of abusing a vulnerable woman for their own ends. But I suspect it was the gaze of Jesus that did for them. They may have been trying to discredit this man because they didn’t believe he had come from God, but try and imagine what it must be like to look the Son of God in the eye and evade his question about your sin.
The whole incident looks brutal to us. Our culture is very different now. But every culture should examine itself more critically than the easy assumptions it makes about the past. We rush to judgment without establishing all the facts. Thirty years ago, we would have had only limited evidence of this: from the people we met and the newspapers we read. The culture of social media now shows just how quick many people are to judge others, without knowing the whole story, without even knowing the person. In some cases, it becomes a pile on, where one person – for whatever reason – is attacked by countless other people, like a pack setting upon a prey. And, in an echo of the story we are looking at, it is women who disproportionately suffer these attacks.
We each approach Lent in a different way. Some give things up, others take things up, still others feel no real need to do either. But the story of the woman hauled before Jesus is a timely one because it asks us to reflect on the way people are easily condemned in this world and the part we take in that. Jesus’ teaching: do not judge, so that you may not be judged is a spiritual checkmate, really, but still we play on. The thing about judging others is that it takes the spotlight off us. And a life without self-reflection can morph into a life without self-awareness. We simply do not register the things we could put right in our own lives because we are so busy pulling other people apart.
If the woman brought before Jesus for judgment was singled out in a way others weren’t - not least the man she was allegedly having an affair with – Jesus’ words to her: neither do I condemn you privileged her in a way few others have been. God’s Son, looking you in the eye and forgiving you, must rank highly in the story of human freedom. And he says just these words to us today. Absolution is hard to come by in an unforgiving world where we hold things over others, so when we receive it from God, it is transformative. Lives cannot remain the same; we inhabit a different world. One where Jesus invites us to become more like him, by the power of his Spirit. Where we say to others: neither do I condemn you.
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