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The Proper Use of the Law

August 15, 2021

Exodus 18:13-27; Psalm 34; Romans 13:8-11; John 7:53-8:11

This gospel text is a real oddity. In many translations/versions there are brackets around the whole story! The New Revised Standard Version has double brackets; the Revised Standard has no brackets. The first thing you’ll read about it in any commentary is that it doesn’t appear at all in the most reliable and oldest of the manuscripts, and yet we know it existed from very early in Christian tradition because of commentary on it by Jerome in the third century. Some manuscripts put it one place; others somewhere else while some Bibles have left it out completely.

It’s been an orphan all its life—and yet, it just won’t go away. And I say, Thank goodness for that! It’s much too good a story to be left out. The plot is tight, the setting is vivid, and we can feel the tension building. And besides being a wonderful jewel of storytelling, the lessons it teaches are too important for us to miss, and they’re given to us through some characters we’ll never forget.

Let’s start with the Scribes and Pharisees. Putting aside all the negatives you’ve ever heard about them, it’s only fair to point out that they were truly concerned about protecting the faith, both theologically and legally. Only by maintaining the rigorous moral standards that the Law dictated could Jews continue to be distinguished from other ethnic or social groups around them, including the Romans. Later, Paul would urge Christians also to live differently than their non-Christian neighbors: to be truthful and kind and forgiving—all qualities the Pharisees knew well.

But if they wanted to trap Jesus, as the text says, they probably considered that the ends justified whatever means were necessary—even if it involved judicial killing. Jesus’ teachings were becoming increasingly threatening to both Jewish theology and the maintenance of the laws that had sprung from it. The sin of adultery was both a threat to the fabric of the family, and it was a familiar metaphor for the Jewish people’s often troubled relationship with God. Just as God had punished their religious adultery—embracing worship of the pagan gods of their neighbors—so, too, were they responsible for punishing real-time, physical adultery when it was discovered amongst themselves. And so, with both rigor and, I suspect, some delight, a woman was brought before Jesus for judgment.

What do we know of the woman? Not much, really. We don’t know her name. We don’t know anything about the circumstances of her adultery. We don’t even know if it was true. Generations of Christians assumed her guilt, but recently folks have begun to wonder. We hear today, in places like India or Nigeria of husbands or their families who bring false charges against a wife just to be rid of her. But, then, so did Henry VIII with Anne Boleyn.

Until my world got so much smaller and cable news networks showed me otherwise, the whole system of execution by stoning had always felt like an archaic barbarism, remote and hard to imagine. But just this past week I watched an interview being conducted by a western, female journalist with a Taliban warlord. She asked him what the Taliban intentions were concerning sentencing of women accused of committing adultery, or of someone accused of stealing. He said the Koran was very clear: thieves were to have hands or feet cut off, and adulterous women must be stoned to death.

These punishments are hard for us to imagine, not only because they seem barbaric, but because they require such a close and personal engagement by the accusers. In today’s gospel story, the accusers were the ones who would have been required to throw the first stones—and we’re not talking about pebbles. Stoning requires rocks that are big enough to break bones, crush skulls, but are still small enough to be picked up and hurled from a very close distance. Stoning is not a quietly sanitized form of execution like, say, lethal injection administered by an employee of the state in an operating room-like space. No, the accusers would have to know the guilty party, perhaps intimately. They would have to be close enough to see the fear in her eyes, perhaps hear her pleas for mercy.

But in our text those details are absent. What we do know is that her life was of no significance to her accusers. This woman, they call her—she was an exhibit, a case, an individual whose value was only as bait for a trap. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that Jesus doesn’t know any more about her than we do, and he’s being called on to pronounce a death sentence. The whole scene is full of irregularities. Under Mosaic Law, for instance, both the woman and the man, would face the death penalty if found guilty. So where is he? The Law specifies that witnesses must be presented before any judgment can be made. One feminist theologian says that what Jesus was writing in the dust was, Where is the man?!

Whatever Jesus was thinking, or writing, what he did was disengage himself from becoming caught up in the situation on someone else’s terms. He refuses to make the hasty judgment that would have brought him into conflict with Roman authority, which reserved for itself the right to judge capital cases. But neither does Jesus ignore the weight of the sin that has been presented to him. Perhaps he just assigns it a different weight than do the Pharisees. He doesn’t say, “Oh don’t bother me with such an insignificant case.” The Law, and Jesus, both understood the implications of adultery and the destructive effects it could have on families and even societies. But the community could also be destroyed by bearing false witness against one’s neighbor. Is one evil to be weighed more heavily than another is?

Maybe the woman had committed the sin of adultery, but would her death mean the triumph of goodness, or just the piling up of another evil on top of the first? In that hot silence when no one was looking at anyone else and everyone was looking inside themselves, a complex life and death struggle was taking place. And the good news on that particular day was that fragile human life won over the cold stone weight of death. And that was not only good news for the woman, but for her accusers as well. They looked deep within themselves and did not hurl stones, but walked away from bringing down judgment on themselves. “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.

What was he writing? The Greek gives us an intriguing clue. He was not merely writing, graphein. The word used to describe what Jesus was doing is katagraphein, writing against, that is, writing down a record against someone. What catalog of sins might have been recorded against those accusers? God only knows. But Jesus’ invitation to introspection struck home. It allowed them to acknowledge that before God they, too, were not without fault.

As intriguing as our speculation about everyone’s sin may be, we really don’t need to know whether the woman was guilty of adultery, or if the Pharisees were guilty of falsely accusing her, because this isn’t a story about how to use the Law to pass judgment on sin. It’s a story about how the Law brings grace. We humans have always expected judgment to lead to punishment, but in this story, Jesus allows judgment to open the door to new life.

Think for a moment about the philosophy that most penal systems are based on—not just ours with its sentencing to death, or life without parole in some hellish penitentiary. The Romans were no more benign. Nor are the Taliban today. Most judicial systems aim to punish crime.

Now think about the daring alternative Jesus offered. He assumed that there was sin and that it wasn’t just the woman who was the sinner. But Jesus doesn’t condemn her to death. He directs her, instead, to live a changed life. She is given another chance. And the Pharisees, and the whole of her community are spared the horror and violence of taking a life. And maybe, just maybe, they all are brought to a degree of humility before God that admits sin and celebrates grace.

In some ways this is a most dangerous story because it takes moral punishment out of our hands. Maybe that’s why it has had such a hard time finding a permanent home in the canon. It challenges our whole notion of what the Law is for. Jesus said he hadn’t come to abolish the Law but rather to fulfill it. That day, for one nameless woman, and for her accusers, that meant the gift of starting over, of being forgiven, of receiving grace.


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