Caught in Adultery!

Now that I’ve gotten your attention, I am thrilled to be able to post some comments on the story of the woman caught in adultery, because this entire story is problematic.  Virtually all scholars, conservative and liberal, agree that these 11 verses in John’s Gospel were not written by John and are not part of his original Gospel at all.  The oldest and best preserved manuscripts do not even contain the story.  Later editions that do include the story place it at different points in the Gospel. Some put it after Ch. 21 of John’s Gospel.  Some others have even placed it after chapter 21 in Luke’s Gospel! So our first problem is that this story is NOT part of sacred scripture.  It seems likely that someone added this story in the margins of an early text, which was then mistakenly copied into the text by a later scribe.  It’s just one more case of the Bible being a patchwork of missing and added words and stories….good thing I’ve never labored under the “sola scriptura” delusion.   

            This story poses another problem because it has been so misused.  People often allude to this passage saying, “Don’t cast stones!” — meaning, “Don’t judge!” And how many times have we heard people quote Jesus saying “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.” The subtle implication of many who quote this verse is that we should not judge other people. It is very true that this passage teaches that we should not judge, but this passage does not teach that there is not a judgment.

            Remember what John already said in 3:16-18. This passage clearly tells us that judgment has already been passed—not by an angry God eager to punish us, but rather, our own conscience has judged some of our actions as wrong.  There is no escape from this inner judgment, except, of course, through accepting the knowledge that Jesus came not to judge but to give us release from judgment. The challenge of this passage is to recognize that we all, at one time or another, are guilty of clinging to judgment of ourselves and others, thereby obscuring God’s amazing grace from shining forth in all its glory within us.  This does not mean flabby indifference to moral wrong, but recognition of our own solidarity in institutional guilt.  The Jesus of the Gospels is far less interested in personal peccadillos than he is in addressing sinful structures that oppress people.  For now, we will set aside what our response to institutional sin should be and focus on individual sin.

            Our attitude toward an individual making bad choices is to address that person privately and gently, as St. Paul advises in Galations, chapter 6.  St. Paul clearly warns us against measuring ourselves or comparing ourselves to someone else.  Matthew, too, says in chapter 7 of his Gospel that we are not to judge, agreeing with James chapter 4 and Romans chapter 14.  Human judges are, by definition, false judges because only God can fairly and honestly judge another person’s heart.  Consider the following:

            First, when we judge, we are insensitive.  The teachers and Pharisees drag this woman publicly before crowds of people in the temple, make her stand before them, and loudly proclaim her sin to the whole crowd.  They refer to the mandatory death penalty for adulterers in Deuteronomy 22, and ask Jesus to condone their following the letter of the Law.  From a legalistic viewpoint, there isn’t a reason NOT to carry out the sentence.  However, there is apparently no record of this penalty being carried out for hundreds of years prior to this incident, and there is the additional problem of the penalty being more often carried out against the woman adulterer than against the male adulterer.  Had they truly been concerned with justice, they would have exhorted the woman to repent and offer a sacrifice of atonement, but as it is, they are insensitive and careless.  “The law commands us to stone such women”. They obviously don’t read the law very well, because Leviticus states clearly (Leviticus 20:10) that the punishment is for the man only.  Deuteronomy 22:22 states that the punishment is for both the man and the woman. Now without getting bogged down in the nitty gritty of the dirty deed, we have a little problem, namely, where is this dude?  If these two were just caught in the act, what happened to him?  Did he jump out an open window and run away? The missing man is relevant because it proves that these self-appointed judges don’t care about justice, they only want to make a scene and hopefully trap Jesus in the bargain. 

We see this superficial simplicity in all kinds of people who have things to hide. A few years back in Union, South Carolina, a young white woman called the authorities and told them that a black man had stolen her car with her two young children. The whole nation watched as the media covered the story of the desperate search for the man and the children.  But the police came to realize early on that the story was a bit too tidy, too calculated to play on the racial tensions of the city.  They soon found her car submerged in a lake with the bodies of her children inside.  The authorities quickly determined that the woman had killed her own children — and she was caught because her story was superficially simple. 

            When we judge we are not only insensitive and superficial, but we are easily shamed.  Notice that to the men’s persistent demands for judgment, Jesus states, “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” By telling them to throw the first stone, he is merely repeating the injunction that Deuteronomy 13 and 17 give — that the witnesses of the deed must be the first ones to cast the stone. So Jesus is calling them out, calling their bluff, as we used to say.   When Jesus puts the focus on them, they are exposed, and in shame they turn away. 

            After they leave, Jesus tells the woman that he will not condemn her either, but neither does he give her permission to keep on making bad choices.  He invites her to accept God’s grace and to turn her life around in joy and freedom.  The whole purpose of confronting our own or someone else’s bad choices, or sins, is not to punish, but to restore to grace. The point of the story is that all of us, respectable or not, caught in the act or not, hidden behind masks of superiority or not, all of us are needful of God’s grace.  We often do not see the Pharisee in our own hearts:

“Oh, I’d never treat my daughter that way!” or “I can’t believe he spent that much money on himself!”  or “Can you believe what she’s wearing?” or “He is so full of himself, isn’t he??”

How many times have we publicly torn down someone else to elevate ourselves…and that is ultimately our sin every time we presume to judge.  Similarly, how many of us have had the fear of being exposed on the most personal level?  The most devastating thing in the world for most of us, particularly those of us in ministry, would be to receive an anonymous letter that simply says, “You are a phony. And I know it.” This is one of our basic fears, which is why we spend so much energy judging others, because we don’t want to look too closely at our own faults.  We forget that Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you — Go and sin no more.”

            In Hawthorne’s classic, “The Scarlet Letter”, Hester Pryne is caught in adultery and must wear a scarlet “A” on her clothing at all times, so that her shame is visible to all.  However, her lover was never revealed, until the end of the book, when we learn that he is none other than the Reverend Dimmsdale.  The whole time she had been wearing the exterior “A”, he had been wearing a secret “A” branded on his chest. She had been forced to bear her shame publicly, but he had borne it secretly.

            Each of us has been branded by someone else at some time in our lives, but we, too, are guilty of branding ourselves.  We all carry our letters.  Some of us carry them publicly, but the vast majority of us carry them privately.  Judging someone else is not going to make those letters go away.  Judging someone else is not going to make us feel better about the wrongful choices we have made.  Judging someone else is only perpetuating the cycle of non-forgiveness of ourselves, and that is not what God wants from us.  God doesn’t want us groveling before his throne as a slave.  God wants and needs us to be the body of his Christ.  God needs us to be the healing touch of the Redeemer.  To do that, to become what God needs us to be, we have to accept the forgiveness that God offers at every moment in the words of Jesus: “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more. Go and live in joy!”

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About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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