This Sunday will be my next to last sermon in DiscipleChurch. So I am choosing to preach from what is for me a particularly precious passage of scripture. It is precious to me because I love it and I hate it. It is, to me, one of the most wonderful and one of the most terrible passages in all of the New Testament.
“Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
To so many commentators and preachers we have all read and heard over our years in the church, THE point of the story is Jesus’ admonition: “Let anyone who is without sin be the first to cast the first stone.” This is very much like his teaching to “Judge not.” Or his parable of the wheat and the tares.
But this ignores the woman whose life was at stake here. If, for the church, the entire point of this story is for Jesus to teach this yet again, then we are using the memory of this woman and the pathos of her life a little bit like the men in this scene were using her just to test Jesus.
One of the compelling aspects attracting me to this story is that it is, essentially, a trial scene. I have spent most of my professional life in trial, so it is natural that I am attracted by this story.
This woman was brought before Jesus on trial for adultery. If she had already been found guilty, which may or may not have been the case, she was being brought to Jesus for him to pronounce the sentence. If she was convicted according to the procedures set forth in the Torah, she faced being stoned to death. Deuteronomy 22.22, Leviticus 20.10. Immediately. No appeal. No clemency. The stones of death were already in the hand of the men who had dragged her there.
In another sense, it was Jesus who was being put on trial. Again. The Torah clearly called for stoning upon conviction. But Jesus was known for teaching “mercy” over “law,” to put it too simply. Would his ruling be to disregard the Jewish law yet again? And, though the Torah prescribed that this woman be stoned to death upon conviction, the Roman occupation forces had decreed that only they could carry out capital punishment in Judea. Would Jesus pronounce a sentence of death and defy Roman law? So this was something like the “trial” scene in which he was asked if Jews should pay Caesar’s tax. Matthew 22.15-22. If Jesus said yes, he faced the wrath of many Jews. If he said no, he was counseling disobedience to Roman law and thus rebellion. So…Jesus responded in that situation enigmatically: “Render onto Caesar what is Caesar, and to God what is God’s.” Many commentators see Jesus response in this crisis in John 8, “Let anyone among you who is without sin cast the first stone,” to also be a way to avoid taking a position against the Jewish law or against the Roman law.
For me, the problem with all of these interesting understandings and interpretations is that they ignore the actual woman whose life was hanging in the balance, the woman who was facing the most terrible of deaths, the woman who was terrified and humiliated and defenseless and at the mercy of these merciless men. As so many women have been in all cultures and in all times. Continuing to this day. (You might ask yourself: since the Torah prescribed that both the man and the woman who had committed adultery together be stoned to death (Deuteronomy 22.22, Leviticus 20.10), why wasn’t the man facing the same trial and punishment? Was a double standard at play here? Or had he escaped, or bought his way out with the woman’s husband? Or was his family protecting him?)
Another compelling aspect of this story, to me, is that it is so quirky–with the account of Jesus inexplicably writing in the dust with his finger twice. It speaks to me as an eyewitness account of something that really happened. Real life is, as we well know, quirky. And in this real event, what was most at stake was the life of this woman. What is most compelling to me about the story is what we do not know. What was the woman’s life like before this event? What was in her past? And, given this event, what was in her future? Like any trial, the lives of the people caught in the controversy always play out after the courthouse doors are locked and the lights turned off. What must have happened to her? Her life having been spared by Jesus’ pronouncement, how did she go on….living?
For Jesus, the story was always about the people.
(In preparation for this sermon, I am asking you if the story of this woman as we know it reminds you of the story of another woman in the gospels. I have no support for this from any commentator I’ve ever read or preacher I have ever heard, but could Jesus have been thinking of this other woman when he was writing in the dust?)
The third aspect of this story that I find so compelling is that, here, real life was intruding upon “churchland.”
In this story, Jesus is teaching in the temple—THE Jewish church, THE high cathedral, you might say. He was very close to the inner sanctum where god’s holiness was said to dwell, the Holy of Holies. He was on grounds covered with symbols of another world. This was the Jewish “churchland, ” separated from and “above” real life. Yet these men have the nerve to drag real life into it. This mob of men drag a terrified, disgraced, defenseless woman into the temple grounds, a woman who has been caught in the very, physical act of unfaithfulness to her husband. This act of sex was, in a sense, dragged into the church. These men, including witnesses and men ready and able to kill her, have brought her there seeking approval to stone her to death. To use rocks to split her skull until her brains poured out. Right there, in the church grounds. Picture it. The choir quits singing songs of another reality. The organ quits playing music only heard in churchland. People quit smiling and passing peace. The symbols of another reality quit meaning anything. The preacher can’t avoid the bitter controversies and physicalities and pains and pleasures of real life. He has to take a stand. He has to tick someone off. He has to plow waaay too close to somebody’s corn. He has to make a donor or two mad, or disappoint a big part of his following. Suddenly his words really matter in the outcome of someone’s life. He has to decide. What he says in church will save or condemn a life. And she will be killed in church or rescued in church.
Ever consider how much of the life of the One we consider the Son of God and the Word made Flesh took place- and takes place now that he has been raised–outside churchland? I really like this.
Quite a terrible, wonderful story.
Hope to see you Sunday.
Your brother, Brooks.