(First of all, sorry this blog hasn’t been updated for a few days – I’m hoping to get back on track over the next week or so. Secondly, thanks to Kenneth Bailey, whose book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes was the inspiration for this post.)
And so it’s the Feast of Tabernacles, and Jesus is in Jerusalem. And, because he’s been upsetting religious leaders such as the Pharisees, he’s found himself the targets of conspiracies to get him out the way. This story is one of those.
He’s teaching in the Temple, crowds surrounding him, when a group of Pharisees drag a woman in front of him. “We caught this woman committing adultery,” they sneer, “and the Law of Moses says she should be stoned. What do you think?”
It’s a horrible situation from the start. No investigation, no trial, just a woman dragged in front of a crowd, her fate thrust into the hands of a stranger as part of a religious debate. It’s not even a subtle attempt to trip Jesus up. We can see this immediately – the Law which called for adulterers to be stoned applied to both parties. This immediately raises an important question – where’s the man?
The answer is cynically obvious – the Pharisees are involved in a nasty piece of religious/political theatre. There’s no man about to be stoned because the concern is less for the purity of the nation and upholding the law, more about catching out Jesus, and therefore a random woman is considered more expendable than a man. This is sick enough in itself, but there’s also the possibility that the man didn’t actually exist. Sure, Jesus says “Go now and leave your life of sin”, but that sin doesn’t necessarily have to be adultery. After all, the whole point of the story is that everyone’s a sinner. It’s not impossible that the woman was innocent of the crime of which she was accused.
(Moments like this also force us to confront religious attitudes towards women, something that’s certainly been an issue for the Church throughout the ages. After all, look at the two iconic women in the Gospels – Jesus’s mother, forever known as a virgin even though there’s no evidence that she remained a virgin following Jesus’s birth, and Mary Magdalene, forever known as a repentant prostitute, even though there’s no evidence that she ever was a prostitute. It’s a thinking that reduces women to the two classic stereotypes, denying their individual humanity… Which is at least partly what this story in John is about.)
(It’s worth remembering that Jesus reacts badly to anything that prioritises religious observance over humanity. John reminds us of this by putting Jesus’s anger against the moneylenders in the Temple right up front in his gospel – religion that actively prevents people from a relationship with God is no religion at all. And maybe the end line in that narrative gives us a clue to what happens in this story – “He did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person.”)
So Jesus is stuck in a cynical, opportunistic situation. During a festival that commemorated Israel’s status as a nation set apart by God, at which every seven years everyone would be listening to a public reading of God’s Law, Jesus is being asked to uphold the words of Moses, the Lawgiver, one of Israel’s greatest heroes. “You’re sitting there, acting like a Rabbi,” the Pharisees effectively say, “Now let’s see you walk the walk.”
But wait – John 18 says that the Romans had removed Israel’s ability to pronounce the death penalty. If Jesus calls for the woman to be stoned, he’s rejecting the authority of Rome. That’s not going to end well.
So Jesus is presented with a choice – let the woman go, which means he’ll be accused of going soft on sin, or call for her to be stoned, which calls down a world of pain from the Romans. The Pharisees think they’ve got him caught in a trap.
But here’s the thing. Jesus is a lot smarter and more streetwise than he’s given credit for. He takes his time about giving an answer; instead he sits there, writing in the dust.
We don’t know what he wrote – I suspect that’s the point. Theories have been put forward – Kenneth Bailey theorises that he actually writes “Stone her” as a way of luring the Pharisees into his own trap. Maybe he wrote “Where’s the man?” Maybe he didn’t write anything, just drew patterns in the dust, drawing attention to himself and away from the woman who’s the injured party in all this.
My old English teacher had a theory I like – maybe Jesus writes words that would be very interesting to the assembled Pharisees – ‘The Jerusalem Hilton, last Wednesday’, perhaps, or ‘Is the money still ‘resting’ in your account?’Sure, this draws attention to the sins of his accusers, but at least Jesus can erase them later. You can’t erase a stoning.
And then Jesus breaks his silence: “Whichever one of you is sinless can throw the first stone.”
It’s a dynamite reply. On one hand it pushes the Pharisees into their own ambush – now they’re the ones who have to choose between the Law of Moses and the laws of Rome. On the other hand it does something deeper and, hopefully, more redemptive – it forces them to confront their own hypocrisy. None of them are sinless; we all fall short of the glory. And the only sinless person there is more interested in scribbling in the dust.
It’s the older Pharisees who walk away first – they’re the elders, after all, the authority figures. They know when they’re beat. Soon only two people are left, the woman and Jesus. It’s interesting to note that, although the story started with Jesus teaching a crowd, these onlookers now seem to have disappeared as well.
“Where’s everyone gone?” Jesus asks, “Aren’t they condemning you any more?”
“No sir,” she replies.
“Then I’m not about to condemn you either. Go and leave your life of sin.”
Here’s Jesus walking the tightrope between holy justice – the woman, like all of us, is guilty of something, even if that’s not necessarily adultery – and divine grace. The choice is down to the woman – down to each one of us – but that grace has been offered. And whatever words Jesus wrote to highlight the hypocrisies of the Pharisees?
They’re gone too, swept away in the dust. They have a choice to make as well. How fanatical should they be about rules at the expense of people?
And when do they need to drop those stones?