John 8:2-11 can be found here...
On this day-after-Saint-Patrick’s Day, I’m going to begin with a little story about my favorite Irish person in the world, my dear-departed mother, J. B. R. R. God rest her soul. My mother prided herself on having the ultimate fiery Irish temper—she took Maureen O’Hara in “The Quiet Man” as her role model (though my mother had lovely black hair, not red). When she loved, she loved fiercely, with everything she had in her. But when it came to being hurt or angry, she was a world class, Olympic-level grudge-holder. In this arena, she took, not Maureen O’Hara, but Barry Sullivan as her role model, and she was not above placing her own peculiar brand of Irish curse upon a person she believed had harmed her. In 1972, my mom and her sister had a falling out, and my mother stopped speaking to her—stopped taking her calls. By the time she’d decided to forgive, ten years later, her sister had begun showing signs of the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. That grudge-holding had cost my mother and my aunt ten years of their relationship.
This morning’s passage from John’s gospel looks like a classic attempt at “Gotcha!” on Jesus, by the religious authorities, and that is exactly what it is.
Jesus goes to the Temple early in the morning. He sits down—the classic position for a Rabbi teaching—and begins to share his wisdom with the people. But his teaching is abruptly interrupted by the appearance of religious leaders, who are dragging with them a woman whose name we never learn. She has been caught in the act of adultery. We don’t know anything about the woman except this: if she is being charged with adultery, it means she was having sexual relations with a man other than her husband. If she is being charged with adultery, she must have a husband, because, at this point in history, adultery is fundamentally a crime against a husband’s rights. His property rights. The woman was considered one man’s property, and she and another man have violated his rights.
So… if the woman was caught in the act of adultery, the absence of the man she was found with is… interesting. Curious. I wonder: who was in the crowd? Is the man caught in adultery there, hiding? Is the woman’s husband there? Is he perhaps one of the religious leaders… is that why there is such zeal to adjudicate this right here, and right now? Is this why there is such passion to thrown stones? And the woman… they “made her stand there.” So, there is zeal to try, convict, and execute her. But wrapped up in all that is the desire to shame her, the need to humiliate her. And they bring her before Jesus.
The woman is brought before Jesus, and made to stand in front of him and the crowd. The people who have brought him say, “Rabbi, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” ~John 8:4
Though scripture and various laws around the world prescribe stoning as a punishment for a variety of crimes whose perpetrators include both men and women, men are rarely stoned. There are about twelve countries around the world where stoning is still practiced. Several of those are abandoning or placing a moratorium the practice, but it happens anyway, by communities taking matters into their own hands. And the vast majority of victims of stoning are women. For an example taken from real life, see the film “The Stoning of Soraya M.,” in which an Iranian woman faces a false charge of adultery so that her husband—who wants to marry a 14-year-old girl—will no longer have to provide for her, or return her dowry to her parents. If you watch that movie, you will see that, today, at least, those who are stoned are first buried up to their waists in the ground, ensuring they will not be able to run away, and that the mob justice being practiced will be swift.
But the story in our passage doesn’t appear to be about a trumped-up charge. Here we have a situation in which two people have been caught, but only one is offered up to be sacrificed to the community’s sense of moral outrage. This is a story about humanity at its worst.
So, what does Jesus say? He confounds the crowds around him for a while by saying absolutely nothing. Because this is John’s gospel, this is a little surprising, since, here at least, Jesus usually has lots to say. For now he is quiet. But those of us familiar with Jesus’ ways can intuit his attitude. Jesus has already shown that he generally is not interested in condemning people for their sins. In fact, he is more often criticized for spending time with people who are on the outs with religious authorities than for almost anything else he does. Jesus has a ministry to moral outcasts. Theologian Sandra Schneiders writes,
… The most remarkable aspect of Jesus’ ministry is surely that he reached out to the morally marginalized, to those the religious establishment declared beyond the pale: prostitutes and adulterers, extortionist tax collectors who were collaborators with the oppressor government, and even military enforcers of that government, as well as heretics and schismatics and pagans, to say nothing of gluttons and drunks. Jesus let these people touch him and he touched them. He was a guest in their homes and ate with them. But, perhaps even more shocking, he also forgave their sins without requiring humiliating and detailed confessions of guilt or even firm purposes of amendment. For this he was roundly castigated by the religious authorities, the guardians of public morality.[i]
And there is no one Jesus reaches out to more effectively or compassionately than those who are kicked to the curb by religious authorities. Think, for a moment, of another nameless woman, this one from Luke’s gospel…the woman who washes Jesus’ feet with her tears and dries them with her hair, and anoints them with costly ointment. Do you remember what Jesus says about her? “I tell you, her sins, which were many, have been forgiven; therefore she has shown great love” (Luke 7:47).
The religious authorities’ approach to confronting sin is public humiliation, shame, and the application of the law at its bloodiest. Jesus’ approach to confronting sin is to see the person before him as capable of change, renewal, wholeness. His first move is compassion. His first move is love, and love is returned with love.
In this moment Jesus is a vision of silent compassion for the woman who stands before him. He turns his attention to the floor of the Temple court, and he begins to trace something there, with his finger. What was he writing? I wonder.
But the religious folks who are eager to let the stones fly keep pestering Jesus, so he finally straightens up and says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” The passage continues, “And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.” A footnote in my bible adds at this point a fragment, which if included, would make the sentence: “And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground the sins of each of them.” And that’s the problem with self-appointed stone-throwers. It seems so much easier to see the faults of others than to notice our own. Do you know which sins Jesus really gets upset about? Schneiders says, “The gospels suggest that there was only one type of person for whom Jesus expressed moral repugnance and even contempt: the self-righteous who condemned others from a position of [religious] power.”[ii]
As Jesus sees it, those in power are very interested in holding others responsible; themselves, not so much. Interesting side note: The practice of stoning plays nicely into this lack of responsibility by the self-appointed judges. The nature of stoning by a mob is that no one person can claim responsibility for the fatal injury. Dreadful, torturous punishment, and no one is responsible.
Now, the people holding the literal or proverbial stones in their hands understand, suddenly, vividly, that they have no right to condemn this woman whom they have already publicly shamed and humiliated. They have no right to the fevered mob violence they’d been ready to inflict, with no consequences to themselves. And so they go away, one by one, dropping their stones, I imagine, as they go. And then they are alone, Jesus and the unnamed woman.
Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.” ~John 8:10-11
And that’s it. Simple. Jesus has not only disarmed the angry mob, he has also set this woman free to go back and try to pick up the pieces of her life. He has no interest in publicly humiliating her one second longer. All he wants to give her is grace. Grace is at the heart of the faith of every follower of Jesus. Last week we worked with this definition of grace: “the love and mercy given to us by God because God desires us to have it, not necessarily because of anything we have done to earn it.”[iii] Jesus showed no interest in any kind of justice that involved condemnation, humiliation, and worse… justice that fails to see the other as a human being, a child of God. Jesus is far more interested in giving grace away freely, the kind of grace that cracks open a person’s heart and invites them to walk a new and better path.
This story is, in a way, an easy example for us. None of us, I’m going to bet, sees marriage as an arrangement in which one person is the property of the other, and I’m also going to bet none of us is interested in death penalties for people who break their marriage vows. Our desire for punitive justice comes out in other ways. Think, for a moment, of the people you really believe ought to be punished for their crimes. Some we all might agree on—murderers, rapists, drug kingpins. But then, think about the specifics of the justice we think should be administered. What would be the outcome? For criminals, it might be death or imprisonment for life. For others—judges, juries, observers—it might be a kind of satisfaction. Now, think of how Jesus handled what in his day was a death penalty case. What’s the difference?
Jesus practiced the seeds of what today is called restorative justice. Restorative justice focuses, not on punishment, but on repairing the harm that caused by the crime. I know. In the case of murder, what repair could there possibly be? And yet, all over the world there is a movement that, instead, says: Let’s not warehouse people like animals in prisons that only reinforce criminal behavior. Instead, let’s begin a process that includes all stakeholders—victims and/ or their families, the perpetrator of the crime, and the community that has been affected by the crime. The focus isn’t on vengeance—which, let’s face it, has become the primary goal of much of our justice system. The focus is on the kind of healing and reparation that can transform lives, relationships, and communities.
The key principles of restorative justice are: 1. Crime causes harm and justice should focus on repairing that harm. 2. The people most affected by the crime should be able to participate in its resolution. 3. The responsibility of the government is to maintain order and of the community to build peace.[iv]
What would our communities look like if we did things a little less like the mob with stones in their hands, and a little more like Jesus? What would our families look like if our foundations were about giving one another grace? What would our hearts look like if our first move stopped being defensiveness or self-protection, and became love and compassion?
You know, at the end of her life, my mom was not such a grudge-holder anymore. Her fiery Irish temper had cooled somewhat. She had seen the impact on herself and her family of holding onto anger, staying with self-righteousness, and believing that being right was the ultimate justification for anger. There had been another, more recent falling out, in which she had been angry with someone who had caused real hurt to a number of people in the family. But a few months before she died she talked to me about it. And she said, “You know, I forgive him. I still love him.” All that was left was the love.
At the end of this story, only Jesus and the woman remain. Jesus, as always, shows her compassion. Jesus isn’t interested in punishment, or violence, or humiliation. All he wants to do, all he does, is to give grace away, the kind of grace that cracks open a person’s heart and invites her to walk a new and better path. Just as he does to each of us, every minute of every day, until we take our last breath. With Jesus, all that is left is the love. Thanks be to God. Amen.
[i] Sandra Schneiders, “Goal of public humiliation is protection of status quo.” National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 1999. http://natcath.org/NCR_Online/archives2/1999c/082799/082799o.htm#TOP.
[iii] “Our Wesleyan Heritage.”