A Jesus story. But bear with me for, while the story appears to be about adultery it is not. I promise. On the other hand, we do have to get a little bit into adultery before we can get past it and through it and onto the Jesus story.
A Jesus story. Scene One.
Some religious authorities catch a woman in the very act of adultery. They drag her into the Temple where Jesus is teaching and they shove her toward Jesus.
Adultery is a terrible thing. It was on the forbidden list way back in the Bronze Age when Moses returned from Mount Sinai with the Ten Commandments. It was still forbidden in the first century, in Jesus’ day. And today, in the early part of the 21st century, adultery remains high on the forbidden list. I suspect it will always be.
It is an ugly sin, adultery. It is ugly and it is a sin because of how very, very hurtful it is ... how deeply it hurts the one whose trust has been betrayed. Adultery upends the delicate balance of vulnerability and trust between two who have pledged faithfulness, each to the other.
Back to the Jesus story. Scene Two.
Having caught the woman in the very act of adultery, the authorities throw her at the feet of Jesus. They throw her down like a gauntlet … as a direct challenge to this spiritual teacher. “Here!” they say. “Here is sin! Here is a sinner! Let’s see what you are made of, Rabbi Jesus. Act! Judge! Pronounce! And you had better be right!”
And, because they feel the need to remind Jesus of the Law of Moses (as if he doesn’t know it) they recall for him the ancient penalty for this most ancient of sins.
From the Book of Leviticus: If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife, both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death. (Leviticus 20:10)
Both? Did I hear both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death? That’s curious.
Likewise, from the Book of Deuteronomy: If a man sleeps with a virgin pledged to be married to another man, you shall stone them to death. (Deuteronomy 22:23)
Them? Stone them? If I understand correctly, the ancient codes in Deuteronomy and Leviticus
agree that adultery takes two. We have also been informed, by the authorities themselves that the woman was caught in very the act. What’s more, both, er, contributors to this sin are to be punished and the punishment prescribed for both is the same: death.
So, I have to ask: Where is he? Where is her partner in crime? Where is the guy? I smell a rat. And, by the way, so did Jesus.
Back to the story. Scene Three.
Just to be clear, there are four parties. First, there are the antagonists: the religious authorities who have caught the woman in the very act of adultery and who challenge Jesus to pronounce and apply the ancient penalty.
Second, there is the woman: guilty, isolated, terrified and exposed. I imagine her clutching her clothing tightly about her.
Third, there is the audience. The audience is manifold. It constitutes those who had gathered around Jesus to hear him during the final day of the Harvest Festival; those who happened upon this scene; those to whom John wrote his Gospel and, last but not least, you and me. We are there as well.
Finally, there is Jesus: the one onto whom all eyes are turned and for whom the whole world is holding its breath.
What will he do? What will he say? How will he pronounce? Will he get it right? What is right?
Jesus bends down. He fingers the dust. Doodles? Dawdles? Who knows? All the while the religious authorities look daggers at him. Their temples pulse, their nostrils flare. They are fairly pawing the ground with their hooves.
An eon passes.
Finally, an eon later, Jesus straightens up. And what he says at that moment while the world is holding its breath is why he is Jesus and we are not: “Let any among you who is without sin, go ahead and cast the first stone.”
His words might as well be a mirror … a mirror just shined with Windex. There, under the bright Palestinian sun, the woman’s accusers are made to see their own reflections clear as day. They see themselves snorting and fuming with righteousness indignation even as they themselves are covered in sin.
It is not a pretty sight. Indeed, it is as ugly as sin. And so it is that the accusers begin to depart.
One by one, beginning with the oldest, they walk away. One by one, they depart the Temple, descend down the steps and disappear into the streets of Jerusalem.
Meanwhile, Jesus is bent over again, looking at the ground, fingering the dust. Doodling? Dawdling? Who knows? Another eon passes
Finally, Jesus straightens up again. He looks around. The accusers are gone. He turns to the woman and asks: “Where is everyone? Is no one left to accuse you?”
“No one”, she says.
“Then neither do I accuse you. Go your way and sin no more,” says Jesus.
This purports to be the story of a woman caught in adultery. That is what it is called: The Woman Caught in Adultery.
But that is not right. That is not what the story is about.
Perhaps it should be called the story of The Religious Leaders Caught in the Act of Hypocrisy. That is getting closer.
Maybe it should be called the story of The Religious Leaders So Consumed By Rage and Righteous Indignation ... So Cold, Calculating and Callous That They Are Willing To Throw a Woman Under the Bus.
But that is not right either. That is not what the story is really about.
Perhaps it should be called the story of The Three Trials. It starts with the religious authorities putting the woman on trial, but that is a ruse. In fact, it is Jesus whom they are trying. But by the penultimate scene the authorities have put themselves on trial – each is his own judge and jury -- and each finds himself guilty.
This is a story about What It Is Like To Live In the Presence of God. This is a story of Divine Forbearance.
If you want to know Jesus … if you are curious about Christianity … if you are drawn toward a life of Christian discipleship learn this story, memorize it, study its anatomy.
This is a story of what it is like to live in the presence of God … where our sins, clear as day and as visible to ourselves as to everyone else, are met with divine forbearance. Mercy. Mercy. Mercy. This is news, good news for the woman caught in adultery, for her haughty accusers ... for me, for you ... for any in whom there is even a smidgeon of sin.
The title of this story should be In the Presence of God or Divine Forbearance. For they are one and the same.
This is the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. That is what this story is about. Thanks be to God!