Hespeler, 4 March, 2018 © Scott McAndless – Communion
John 8:2-11, Romans 7:15 - 8:1, Psalm 51:1-17
hey had grasped her by the arms and by the legs and then dragged her through the streets little caring that her clothes were being ripped and torn away from her. Frankly a number of them took advantage of the situation by ogling the exposed portions of her body that would normally never be seen in public. A
few of them were even so bold as to take advantage of her vulnerability by reaching out to touch what should have been off limits.
It was fine. They were sure that it was fine because they were on a holy mission. They had taken her in a flagrant act of sin. They were protecting the community from her filth. Surely, if they took advantage just a little bit, it was only in a good cause.
They were looking for the popular preacher who had been seen around town recently – gathering large crowds and preaching all sorts of nonsense. He had been getting certain people in the community all worked up – treating them like they mattered or something and it had been causing trouble. They had decided to take the man’s popularity down a peg or two by forcing him to take a position on this clear matter of sin.
A cry went up from the men at the front of the mob. They had spotted the preacher. They soon had him cornered and forced the woman to stand on her feet in front of him. Their leader, a big ruffian, spoke for the group. “Teacher,” he said, “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?”
Now I think it is probably helpful to pause for a moment and try to understand what that mob was actually asking. They were accusing that woman of sin – the specific sin being, of course, adultery. And you may think that you know what they meant by that accusation, but it doesn’t mean exactly the same thing for us as it did for them. For us, adultery refers to some sort of marital infidelity, usually of a sexual nature. It is what we accuse someone of if they break their marriage vows.
It didn’t mean exactly that to them, which is kind of obvious when you think about it. For us, there are always two (or maybe more) people involved in adultery. It takes two to tango, as they say. But these men have brought only one “sinner” to be judged in this case. A lot of modern people react to this story by asking, “If she was taken in adultery, why did this gang just bring her for judgement to Jesus. Where is the guy? Why didn’t he get brought along too?
But the fact of the matter is that adultery wasn’t just a matter of infidelity between two persons to them. Marriage, for them, was not just something between two people. Marriage was about the larger family and, to a certain extent, the entire community. It was also very much about property with marriage being the prime method of transferring property between families. For that matter, the woman in a marriage was herself considered to be a piece of property.
You are all familiar, I imagine with the commandment that goes, “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house; you shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or male or female slave, or ox, or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.” Well, you realize that that commandment is all about not trying to take your neighbour’s property away from him. And note that, in this context, a neighbour can only be a “him” because your neighbour’s wife is not your neighbour but obviously a piece of property that belongs to your neighbour. So a marriage, for them, was a property deal with the wife being just another piece of property.
And if that is the case, then adultery, for them, was as much a crime of theft as it was a matter of the breaking of any marriage vows. And what’s more, anything that a woman did to devalue herself as a piece of property could have been seen as an act of adultery.
What do I mean by that? Well, for example, before she became a piece of her husband’s property a woman was considered to be a piece of her father’s property and so he could give her, in marriage to whomever he chose. But what if she didn’t like her father’s choice? What if she rejected his choice and, horror of horrors, pledged herself in some way (and, yes, perhaps in some carnal way) to someone else. Well, that would have been to devalue herself as a piece of her father’s property. And it would have been to break the sanctity of the marriage vow because she, as a woman, was not considered competent to make any marriage vows by herself. So actually it was not all that uncommon for a woman to be accused of committing adultery all by herself.
All of this goes to illustrate, I hope, that questions of sin did not mean exactly the same to them as they do to us. For them, how you dealt with sin had much more to do with protecting the whole of society than with the concerns of the individual. That is why, of course, the response to sin that is proposed in this case – stoning someone to death – is a communal punishment. It is something that the entire community has to participate in because what she has done is seen as a threat to the entire community. She has threatened the very foundations of that community.
And so I have lots of problems with how this woman is being treated and judged in this passage. Basically she is being offered up as a kind of scapegoat for all of the problems, lacks and failures of her entire society. All of the failures of marriages in her society, all of the misery that powerless women are put through in their relationships, all of the men who act out their anger at their lot in life against weaker people than them (like women) – all of these failures and miseries produced by the society, these are being laid upon this woman. She must die to save the community because she has dared to challenge the rules of her society in some way. It is not right and I, like you, like all “civilized” modern people, bristle at what is being described in this passage.
Jesus, I am glad to say, bristles at it too. He agrees with you and me that this is not right. But you shouldn’t assume that his objection comes because he is looking at this issue as you would. Jesus, whatever else he was (and he was a whole lot else) was a man of his time.
You see, we, as modern people, would likely suggest a very modern resolution to this situation. We would likely say that this woman’s offence (if we saw it as an offense at all) was a personal matter – something to be worked out between her and her husband or whoever else she might have offended. We would likely not see any role for anyone else except, perhaps, some sort of mediator. We would certainly not see the rocks and stones of the entire community as a necessary remedy.
Jesus would agree that the stones are not going to solve anything, but his reasoning is quite different from what ours would be. Jesus does recognize that her sin is not just her own personal matter. It is something that affects and is a part of the community. In that he agrees with the people of his own time and with the overall view of the Bible regarding sin. But his response is that the traditional solution, which is collective punishment of the perceived offender, is not going to work. Why? Because we all participate in the sin.
That is what Jesus is referring to when he confronts the men in the mob by saying, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” He is not accusing them of any particular sin here. He is not saying that they have committed any particular offense much less the specific sin of adultery. Some of them may have, of course, and may feel some shame on a personal level, but Jesus is not seeking to shame them in that way. He is saying something significantly different. He is taking sin seriously and is not denying that it is a threat to the community, but he is rejecting the traditional response to sin which has been to say that we can just find someone to shame and punish to expiate the sin and be done with it. Jesus challenges us to look at the problem differently, to see how we are all participants in it.
How should we deal with the issue of sin in the church today? There are some Christians, I know, who are just like the mob in this gospel story. They want to be seen as tough on sin and they love to pick out particular types of sinners in order to shame them. Ironically, just like the men in the story, they never seem to pick those whose sin is greed or pride or the use of power to subjugate others. No, they prefer to ignore those sins (which are heartily denounced in the Bible) in order to find some sinner who can be accused of something else, something that seems worse to them because it is sexual in nature. They then focus on shaming that person or group of people as a way of making themselves feel that they are righteous. That is an approach to sin that I see Jesus roundly rejecting in this passage.
There is another approach that some Christians take that may lead to them to being accused of being soft on sin. Some Christians even desire to be seen that way. I don’t think that is the approach that Jesus takes in this story either. He takes the sin seriously, but he is not willing to use shame – especially not on the the individual – the woman. He knows how ineffective shaming is and that it often twists and even destroys those it is deployed against.
But even more important than that, he understands that it is never as simple as blaming one person. The choices made by individuals are never taken in isolation. They are often forced or constrained by others – by the flaws in the society itself that deprives people of income or forces them into unhealthy relationships. Jesus asks us all, as he asks the men in this story, to examine the ways in which we participate in the flawed society that has a penchant for creating ever more victims.
And we do. We participate in the capitalistic system – a good system in many ways, maybe even the best possible economic system, but one that nevertheless continues to create more losers than winners. We participate in activities that accelerate the destruction of the environment. We participate in a society that has a way of turning a blind eye to too much injustice, inequality and open racism and hatred.
I do not say this to shame anyone. I know that, in many ways, these things are just part of how the world works and that the world is flawed. You really don’t have much choice but to participate in these systems and that does affect each and everyone of us. But we all do participate and that is part of the problem. Our obsession with shaming others doesn’t help to make any of us any better.
Instead of shame, Jesus is looking for repentance – for change. Instead of finding a victim to blame, he is asking for an honest look at the things that we allow to go wrong in society. This is what Jesus is disturbed about and so should we be.
How seriously should we take sin? Very! How much should we invest in piling on those who are easy to blame for what goes wrong in society? We should give no energy or legitimacy to that. We should be gracious. We must look to ourselves first. Let the ones who do not participate in systems of injustice and unrighteousness be the first to cast a stone.