One of the Gospel’s most gripping stories unfolds in John 8:1-11.
In this era of “#metoo,” the movement that reveals women’s experiences of sexual assault, this reading describes an incident of the oppression and condemnation of a woman and Jesus’ remarkable reaction to it.
In John, a woman “caught in the very act of committing adultery” is brought before Jesus by the scribes and Pharisees.
Often, I wonder how past generations viewed the good news of Jesus in different ways than we do. How did they use their imagination to contemplate this scene?
Today, it’s probably rare for one reading this story not to immediately question the whereabouts of the man with whom this woman had sex. That phrase resonates: “in the very act.” If you catch someone so flagrantly, obviously the other party is clearly identifiable.
Yet it’s only the woman who is roughly dragged forward and thrust before Jesus into the middle of a group of self-righteous men. Where’s her adulterous partner? Why isn’t he being publicly rebuked and threatened? The law of Moses, the men say, condemns “such women” to stoning.
In so much of history — and even today — it’s often the woman who pays society’s price for sexual transgression. Not so long ago, the pregnant unmarried teen was hustled away to a maternity home while the prospective dad was allowed to finish high school.
In John’s story, we are struck once again by the gentleness and mercy of Jesus, the way he crosses the border into the lives of women, engages them and stands up for them.
A mystery of this story is what Jesus is writing in the dirt. Twice, he bends over and uses his finger to write in Palestine’s dust.
Then Jesus asks the men, whose faces I imagine are hostile and indignant, which of them is without sin. Let that man cast the first stone.
One by one, beginning with the eldest, they move silently away. They slither away. Is their indignation now replaced by embarrassment? Insight? Were their sins written on that road?
Jesus, who came to fulfill the law and the prophets, had little use for religious laws made by men that favored authority over mercy. As my favorite Jesuit homilist was told by his spiritual director, “Our God is a rule breaker. Don’t focus on the rules. Focus on God.”
This reading illustrates the great compassion of Jesus toward the underdog — in this case, the woman. Jesus stands with all the oppressed, the victim of rape as a tool of war, the immigrant mercilessly separated from his family and deported, those marginalized because of their race or religion, those imprisoned in the relentless cycle of poverty, the victims of violence, those on death row.
Jesus is the Lord of the underdog.
He speaks to the woman. “Has no one condemned you?” When she replies no, he says, in a voice I imagine to be full of affection, “Neither do I condemn you.” He sends her away to sin no more.
I examine my own role in this story. Whom do I condemn? Not in major ways, perhaps, but in the silent “tsk, tsk” of my mind. How often do I shake my head, thinking I could direct people to make better choices, when I have enough of a challenge making my own? Which of my sins would be written in that dust?
If Jesus stands in mercy with the underdog, that’s where Christians are challenged to stand. Am I standing there? Are we standing there as church?
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