[Jesus] came again to the temple; all the people came to him, and he sat down and taught them. The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery, and placing her in the midst they said to him, “Teacher, this woman has been caught in the act of adultery. Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such. What do you say about her?” This they said to test him, that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. And as they continued to ask him, he stood up and said to them. “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” And once more he bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. But when they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the eldest and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. Jesus looked up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, Lord.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and do not sin again.” John 8:2-11 (RSV)
In the beginning of this story, Jesus rather coarsely avoided engaging the scribes and Pharisees. He had no intention of meeting them on their own terms. He did not even stand up to receive them! Instead, he passively defied them by ignoring them and doodled with his finger in the dirt. “Such an act of insolence! After all, who does he think he is?” the scribes and Pharisees must have thought.
The scribes and Pharisees had assumed that Jesus would fall into their trap and defend himself from their well planned accusations. Instead of meeting their expectations, he shocked every onlooker by stopping the further abasement and abuse of the woman.
This action is absolutely amazing! We must remember that these detractors of the Lord were actually committing a form of blasphemy. They were seeking to discredit and condemn the Son of God! Jesus could have at least jumped in here to defend the truth of his personal identity as God. To be sure, he does find time later to say of himself: “I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but have the light of life” (John 8:12 RSV). Jesus, however, does not do it here.
Instead, he first attends to society’s lowest of the low and offers the woman her human dignity, freedom and a restored relationship with God. This quiet action of attending to the very least of his brethren paradoxically conveys the heart of the Gospel message: “For God so loved the world that he gave his Son, (John 3:16 RSV)”. And this giving to the world was complete and unconditional.
The scribes and Pharisees in this story clearly had no love of God. All they cared about was the security of their position, power and glory. And their spiritual hard heartedness was reflected both in their treatment of Jesus and of the woman.”
In our re-telling of this story today, we sometimes encounter a kind of passive sexism. We may sometimes focus our attention on the treatment of Jesus by these corrupt leaders at the expense of the woman’s situation. Some of us may lack the ability to appreciate that both the concerns of Jesus and the woman reflect aspects of the very same reality. This is because the Lord reminds us: “ … just as you did it to one of the least of those who are members of my family, you did it to me,” (Matt. 25:40 NRSV).
This story quite vividly marries two realities: the manner in which we treat every person and our obedience to the will of God. One cannot even claim to be a follower of Christ and believe themselves to be qualitatively “superior” to others. There are simply no exceptions to this. In this story, the woman was not dismissed or even patronized by Jesus. Instead, he restored her full personal dignity.
Still, not enough has been said about the woman as a woman.
This story reveals two important points to us; firstly, that she had her own personal sins with which to contend and secondly, she was caught in an ongoing dehumanizing process within an equally dehumanizing context. The manner in which sin was expressed in this malevolent cycle is, in a unique manner, directly related to the fact that she was female.
A woman in her society who was caught in adultery was a criminal and source of scandal who could only be punished by death. It was not uncommon for men, particularly men with power and means, frequently to escape such distasteful repercussions when engaging in the same or even worse behaviors. Her accusers’ actions revealed a common contempt for her gender. They had no concern for her as a human being, rather, she was simply used as an instrument to “get at” Jesus. Her value as a human person was of absolutely no consequence to these detractors. On a spiritual level the scribes and Pharisees were blind. It was because of this blindness that they could not “see” the woman as a full human person. It was this very same blindness which also impeded them from seeing who Jesus truly was!
It is important to note here that Jesus’ singular response was comprised of two actions. The Lord freeing the woman from the physical and spiritual aspects of her personal sin comprised the “second” part of his response. Jesus first had to free her from the shame and violent attack inflicted on her by the scribes and Pharisees. Jesus simply and powerfully releases her merely by exposing their gross hardness of heart.
This story offers us a crystal clear example of the so-called “sins of the institution” as originating from deep within the hearts of human beings. Even as we appreciate that the woman was fully accountable for her actions, nevertheless, the vast bulk of blame in this story was placed on the hardness of heart of her accusers.
Jesus truly knew who the woman was. He did not forget her. He did not abandon her. Despite her own obvious sin and limitations, the woman still had a hearing heart. She even perceived who he was because she addressed him as “Lord.” Absolutely nothing else was required of her that day in order to be freed from bondage.
As was his usual pattern, the Lord dealt with each person in this story solely by the measure of love and acceptance they had for him in their hearts. We are not surprised that he gave the scribes and Pharisees absolutely no credence. At the same time, we may for reasons of our own passive sexism easily neglect the witness of the woman whose heart recognized and responded to her Lord. It is because of the woman that the Lord changed the manner in which he taught that day! He went so far as to forego temporarily his proclamation, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life” (John 14:6 RSV), for the sake of the dignity and salvation of the woman. That day, the woman left as a friend of God. And what we must honestly ask ourselves now is, what does this have to say to us … today?
Dr. Kyriaki Karidoyanes FitzGerald is a theologian, clinical psychologist and pastoral counselor. A Commissioner of the Faith and Order Commission of the World Council of Churches, she was part of the delegation of theologians representing the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople to the World Council of Churches World Conference in Spain this past August.