Dr. H. Stephen Shoemaker
Myers Park Baptist Church
Charlotte, North Carolina
March 18, 2012
JESUS AND THE WOMAN TAKEN
Text: John 8:2-11
Here is a story that is part of the indelible memory of the church: Jesus and the Woman Taken in Adultery. She is first of all a woman taken.
This text however is not to be found in the three-year Common Lectionary adopted by many denominations, and therefore is rarely preached today, and not in the cycle of texts studied by Bible WorkBench. It is a scene as familiar as “Jesus and the children” or “Jesus cleansing the temple,” but it is rarely read in worship anymore.
Why was it omitted? Squeamishness over the topic, a “scarlet letter” story? Was it because scholars now know that the text was not included in the earliest manuscripts of John’s gospel? Today it is placed in brackets or footnotes in some Bibles. It seems to have be an orphan text floating around looking for a home, important to the early church, but nobody knew where to place it. In some ancient manuscripts it shows up in other places in John (after John 7:36 or at the end) and also in Luke’s gospel (after Luke 21:38).
It was a text so much like Jesus and so important to the memory of the church that they did not want it to disappear.
I chose this text last summer while planning my Lenten preaching after reading Mary Gordon’s book, Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter With the Gospels.1 She is a noted novelist, raised Roman Catholic, who was riding in a New York City taxi cab one day and heard on the radio a mean-spirited sermon on Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats. The incident propelled her to get out of the taxi and read straight through the Gospels, read them for herself. And from that reading came this book. Her chapter on today’s story gave me new eyes to see it, new ears to hear it, and propelled me to preach this text today.
Here is the story, as vivid and memorable as Jesus’ parables of the Prodigal Son and Good Samaritan.
Jesus was in Jerusalem teaching near the temple to an interested crowd when a woman was dragged into Jesus’ presence and “set . . . in the midst of them.”
She had been “taken” in adultery. “Caught” is the normal translation, but the action was more violent than just “caught”. Kateilummenon, taken, as by force, maybe to that bed, but surely from that bed and dragged into public and made to stand in the middle of the crowd in front of Jesus. Did the men let her dress? Did they watch her dress?
Where is the guy? we might ask, the fornicating man? How arbitrarily, subjectively, society chooses its chief sinners and those who are to be punished.
The scribes and Pharisees said to Jesus:
Teacher, this woman has been taken in adultery, in the very act. Now the law of Moses commands us to stone such a woman. Now what do you say?
They said those words, the text says, to “trap” Jesus, so to “bring charges against him.”
She is being used, in Mary Gordon’s words, she is “a plaything, a pawn ....”2 She is without power, easy to scorn, easy prey for those who want to use her as a theological pawn, a political pawn. Just as people are used so today.
And at the cost of a life! As Matthew Shepherd beaten to death because he was gay, or black men lynched in the South at one time, the lynchings always accompanied with Christian hymns and symbols. Or Jews in the Holocaust. Or today in “honor killings” in the Middle East or execution of gay men in Uganda, all in the name of God and family and righteousness.
“They made her stand in the midst of them.” In Mary Gordon’s words, “Unflanked. Unprotected. Alone.”3 Except, except that she was placed before Jesus, so she was not alone. She will never be alone.
The accuser said: “Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such a woman.” Mary Gordon comments:
Such. Such a one . . . . Her name is “such.” We hear the demand that as a “such” violence be perpetrated upon her, as a deterrent to her “suches,” others of her kind. The loudness, the force of the accusation is followed by the invocation of a law.4
We see it happen all the time: people reduced to a “such.” He is such a . . . . She is such a . . . . So millionaire radio personality Rush Limbaugh pronounces the “slutness” of a young woman testifying before Congress. We could make a long list of epithets - - racial, sexual, class-based, religious - - that people use to demean and dehumanize, to reduce people by their “suchness.”
Whole groups of people can be scape-goated, dragged into the public in order to bring in votes and money. Hate is a money maker in politics and religion.
So what did Jesus do? The trap had been set. Would he be seen as easy on sin, a disregarder of the Mosaic law, undependable as a moral teacher, or would he hand her back into the hands of the righteous keepers of the law?
He did not answer them immediately. He knelt and wrote something in the sand. What did he write? Note first that he knelt there beside the woman, everyone else standing over her, Jesus now kneeling beneath her.
Many suggestions have been made about what he wrote. It is a wonderful spiritual exercise to imagine what Jesus might have written. What do you imagine he wrote? What would you have wanted him to write?
Some say he was just doodling there in the sand. Buying some time while he figured out what to say, or extending the silence so to make the accusers squirm a little longer.
Maybe he scribbled a message for her, for the woman. Something just between the two of them. Maybe he wrote the most oft-repeated word of God to us in scripture: “Be Not Afraid.” I smile at the thought. Be not afraid. You are not alone.
It is the only time in the Gospels that we see Jesus write something. In a Lenten service led by Andrew and Chrissy there was one prayer station where we could write something to God in the sand with our finger. Then erase it so another could come. I can still feel my index finger write the words, then smooth the cool sand. What would you write in the sand today to God?
Then Jesus stood up and said the words which are the vivid collective memory at the church: “Let whoever is without sin cast the first stone!” Here is how Mary Gordon captures the moment:
Bursting out of silence, like a circus dog bursting through a paper hoop, Jesus responds to the accusation of the law: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her . . . .”5
Now it was the crowd’s turn to be silent. And as they heard his words, the text says, “They went away, one by one, beginning with the elders.”
“At this moment,” Gordon writes, “an entire ethical system is born.”6 It undercuts the prevailing system where sexual sin is elevated above all others. Dorothy Sayers, the famous British mystery novelist and Christian writer, wrote an essay on the seven deadly sins entitled “The Six Other Deadly Sins.” The title came from the time she mentioned the seven deadly sins in a lecture at Oxford, and a young man come and said, “I did not know there were seven deadly sins. Please tell me the names of the other six.”7
So Jesus leveled the playing field of sins. He also implied that we can never judge another from a position of moral superiority. As I John says, “If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves, and truth is not in us” (I John 1:8). The church too often divides the world into the righteous and the wicked, the good and the despicable, and pronounces its judgment, its condemnation. Reynolds Price, the famous Duke novelist was a devoted follower of Jesus, but he would not join a church because of its proclivity to judge, thereby betraying the spirit of Jesus. He wrote these luminous, challenging words:
Orthodox Christianity, the church in most of its past and present forms, has defaced and even reversed whole broad aspects of Jesus’ teaching; but in no case has the church turned more culpably from his aim and his practice than in its hateful rejection of what it sees as outcasts: the whores and cheats, the traitors and killers, the baffled and stunned, the social outlaw, the maimed and hideous and contagious. If it is possible to discern, in the gospel documents of Mark and John, a conscious goal that sent the man Jesus – himself an urgent function of the Maker of all – to his agonized death, can we detect a surer aim than his first and last announced intent to sweep the lost with im into God’s coming reign?8
But the story is not finished. Jesus knelt down a second time and wrote something. What was it this time? Then he stood up and asked the woman: “Woman, where are you accusers? Has no one condemned you?” “No one,” she answered. Then Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
Maybe what he wrote this time was: Do Not Be Ashamed! First, “Do Not Be Afraid.” Now, “Do Not Be Ashamed.” Or this, “No Condemnation!” Not from others, not from him. Not from God.
Then the words, “Go and sin no more.” Does this feel like he has just set the bar impossibly high? Who could pull this off?
Or, was he speaking of this particular sin? Was he saying: “Remember and learn. Do not fall back into that again.”
There was in a federal prison a new class on literary classics taught to prisoners by an English teacher. Some questioned it. What good would classical literature be to inmates? Something more practical, please! But the teacher said, “What great fiction does is to help us imagine a “before” and an “after,” the possibility of a turn in the road, a new path, a “B.C.” and “A.D.” in your life.
So Jesus was offering this woman a new path: You can go a new way. One that leads to life. Choose it.
Novelist Jan Karon of the famous Mitford novels, based on a Blowing Rock kind of town, has a character say: “Every saint has a ‘past’, and every sinner has a future.”
Jesus is giving us a future. He is giving us all a future.
1 Mary Gordon, Reading Jesus: A Writer’s Encounter With the Gospels (New York: Anchor Books, 2010).
2 Ibid., p. 77.
4 Ibid., p. 78.
5 Ibid., p. 79.
6 Ibid., p. 80.
7 Dorothy Sayers, “The Other Six Deadly Sins,” Creed and Chaos (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1949), p. 63.
8 Reynolds Price, Three Gospels (New York: Scribner, 1996), p. 33.