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This dramatic “midrash” of the story from John was told prior to the scripture reading:
It’s all too easy to throw stones.
Stoning serves many purposes. It quiets anger, satisfies jealousy, provides a scapegoat, transfers shame, masks a guilty conscience, and facilitates control.
Sacred violence is very powerful. To kill in the name of God or God’s law can easily justify our fears and anger, or make our self-righteous hate a holy action that gathers others into its web.
Under the law of Moses there are several offenses worthy of this exercise in execution, so the sacred ritual of throwing stones has long been practiced in our village. Many of the rocks outside our city gates are stained with the sin of those who have broken the law of Moses. And though I am guilty of the sin of which I have been accused, no stones are stained with my blood.
He came to our village, a man we did not know, the man with the piercing eyes. As I stood before my executioners, he touched me, I trembled as I thought he was my accuser, the one to cast the first stone. I bowed my head and prepared to die.
Instead of hurling insults or rocks he turned away from me and toward the angry crowd and in a clear voice he challenged them, “Let anyone who is without sin cast the first stone.” He stood resolute, I thought they would kill him too. Then he knelt down and wrote in the sand with his finger the names of all the men and women of our village who had died of ritual stoning – a daughter, a son, brothers, sisters, a friend. With his words the sacredness of the deadly ritual was broken. Guilt and truth replaced the justification for violence. Fingers loosened their grip on once tightly held instruments of death. As my executioners left, one by one, he turned back toward me and with no accusation in his voice he told me I was forgiven, and to sin no more. As I watched him walk away I searched my soul and asked myself, “exactly what was my sin?”
I had been the property of my father until I was 13, at which time I was given in marriage to a man I did not know and I became his possession. When he died I was given to his brother because property was to be kept in the family. When I outlived him, my son inherited me. By now I was worthless baggage as I was no longer fertile. I found my worth in the arms of a man who was not interested in possessing me but loving me.
What was my sin… that I had disrespected the property rights of those who held power over me? Was I not grateful enough? If I had been purchased would I not have sinned? Did I threaten the economic viability of the family or the community? If I was not punished could all women in the village refuse to be property and expect to be greatly loved?
I soon left my village to find the man with the piercing eyes because I had many questions, and there were frequent rumors of his where-a-bouts. I found him… but not in time to ask my questions. I stood at a distance, with a crowd of women, at a place called Golgotha and watched….
He too had become a victim of legal and sacred violence. But no one was there to write in the sand for him, no one to accuse his accusers.
This man, without even knowing me, said that I was forgiven. Now I watched as he likewise asked God to forgive his tormentors has he hung on the cross.
It was forgiveness that lifted him beyond the rest of us.
This story is not present in our earliest manuscripts of John’s gospel, it simply isn’t there. Many scholars believe this addition doesn’t even show up until as late as the 4thcentury. Now that could be a whole sermon in itself, but what I find fascinating this morning is wherethe story gets added. It comes right aftera debate among the crowd about whether or not Jesus is the Messiah. Even in Jesus’ time and place, people had all kinds of ideas about the messiah…and Jesus reshaped them all. He re-imagined God for us, re-worked our tribal mindsets and gave us a whole new vision of what the world might be. We’re still shaken by this vision of what life can be, of what he called “God’s Reign” instead of Caesar’s. And nowhere – NOWHERE – is this more apparent than in the way we think about justice, which often looks more like plain ol’ judgment, and how Jesus pursues Grace.
I want to make this story about injustices against women, and there’s plenty of fuel for that. This is not some scenario trapped in history, meaningless to us because, “things like this never happen anymore” – systems that devalue or ignore women, a woman judged with a double standard by a group of men with her life literally or figuratively on the line. Currently there are waves of legislation, in our state and beyond, that seek more and more control over a woman’s body, but never ask any questions about a man’s body, or a man’s role in the reproductive process. We have a former Vice-President and some actions we might dismiss as a simple invasion of personal space, but which really reveal a deeper cultural comment on the bodies of women. I think of comments from colleagues and friends – a woman, in her robe, stole and metal cross necklace, no less – standing in her own church’s narthex, being asked by a visitor if the man walking by is the minister…a clergy friend who is told often that she should work with a local church/pastor without consideration as to whether or not that church/pastor would recognize her ordination, because women pastors are NOT universal…and I had lunch with a clergy colleague the other day and when the bill came – say it with me women in the room, it was set down in front of…me. It’s like every step that is taken forward, there are three steps back, and we know – we KNOW – that this story is about injustice. And I know what I’d like Jesus, the messiah and savior of the world, to do – rain down holy thunder and lightning on the gathered crowd of men. But he doesn’t.
The woman in question in this story from John is not named, not even by her accusers. She’s not even an individual. The text says that the law demands we stone “such women.” She is a typeof woman – a label, a kind that categorically deserves death. Supposedly caught “in the act,” she is the only one dragged into the public square. The man is nowhere to be found, though clearly the accusers know who he is – being caught “in the act” pretty much removes your chances of anonymity. The code from Deuteronomy that prohibits this woman’s activity alsoprohibits the man’s. Heshould be in that public square as well, he should have the arms raised and the stones aimed at his head, too, but he’s nowhere to be found, which makes this text even more convicting as a trap set for Jesus, rather than anything about the supposed “injustice” these men are lifting up.
The unanswered, even unasked, question is – why? Why are these two caught “in the act?” Was this a setup from the beginning, a way to ensnare Jesus by exploiting this relationship which everyone knew about? Did the man also “caught in the act” get released because it was a setup the whole time? Is this a loving relationship or is she a sex worker and, if so, is that by her choice or because it reveals the few options available for women in a patriarchal system that both demands purity and requires lust, a system that values women so minimally?
It is clear from the last line of the passage that even Jesus holds her accountable for something– go, he says, and sin no more. I don’t really know what has happened, or if this woman has really done something “wrong.” What I do know is that when Jesus is asked to denounce her, he refuses, like he does so often, not rejecting the idea of sin, or the reality that we all miss the mark sometimes, but rejecting the idea that we are to be shamed and punished and subjugated because of it. It has to be madecrystal clear, that he rejects the way this is handled. They are trying to trap Jesus to make a public statement and he uses that to call out their hypocrisy, their false piety and the broken system in which they live and breathe and have their being.
Some have questioned a single line in this passage, the one right after they level these charges against this woman and ask him what should be done with her. That line reads, “Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.” What is he writing? Is he writing the commandment from Deuteronomy to emphasize that they have only one party present for this stoning? Maybe, as some suggest, he is writing down the names of the men in that very circle who have alsotaken advantage of this woman, or this “type” of woman, perpetuating the very immorality they claim to be opposing. Then again, maybe he’s just pausing for dramatic effect?
Dr. Amy-Jill Levine notes in her feminist companion to John’s Gospel that surprisingly, at the apex of the story, as we sympathize with this woman and imagine her there, surrounded by a group of angry men, “Jesus places the right of execution directlyin the hands of the scribes and Pharisees…each must examine his own life according to the same Law under which the adulterous woman stands judged.” While this is admittedly brilliant strategy on Jesus’ part, I’m not sure how crazy I’d be about it as the accused woman. After all, they can start hurling rocks if just one of themclaims to be without sin and it’s not hard to imagine an alpha-male pumped up on self-righteousness and arrogance making such a claim. But they don’t. The awareness of their own sin settles in on them and they walk away, disarmed of their capacity to wield their judgment on others.
Jesus, we should note, doesn’t judge them, either. He doesn’t judge anyone in this story, though if Jesus is the one without sin, God in the flesh, as our tradition says, then he, by his own rule, is the onlyone who can judge the men and this woman, now left alone, standing in the hot sand as Jesus looks up. No one has condemned you? Neither do I – go and sin no more.
I wantto make this story about Jesus rebuking the patriarchy, which I still think is true. And others want to make it a clarification of the reality of sin, and how even though we aren’t supposed to judge, we are all still guilty of missing the mark, which is also true. I wonder if this story helps us to see a Jesus who doesn’t operate on “either-or” and, while dedicated to justice, is trying to get us to step outside our carefully constructed boxes, if only for a moment. It is as if he doesn’t want us to simply switch sides in a self-righteous game, where we judge the judges, or hate the haters, and that makes it all alright. I believe that the story wants to place us in a spot where we have a difficult time with who is the “good guy” and who is the “bad guy” precisely because it is such a human thing operate in a polarity. We always divide the story up in sides and equally as often write ourselves into the role of the good guy.
“Let he who is without sin” and “go and sin no more” have the same impact – they are words of grace in an ungracious time. Grace, to be clear, is not forgiveness or absolution. Those things require repentance and restitution. Grace is the radical notion that we are all loved by God regardless of what we do. It is a concept both reassuring and disturbing, one that we love when it is aimed at us and despise when it is shown to those we disparage. That is why I think that we see it only in Jesus. It’s not as if this woman suddenly pours out grace on her accusers. Why should she? She is trapped in a system that absolutely devalues and destroys her. And the men? They are happy to getgrace, but in no danger, I suspect, of being tainted by it enough to dole it out.
That’s the same for all of us, for I don’t think this story is meant to teach us all to have God’s grace, a Grace I do not understand and struggle to accept. If there’s one thing I am clear about from a long tenure in ministry, it’s that there is a God and I am not Her. I cannot dole out such grace. I am about justice, and my justice is pretty limited and awfully judgy. So, can I hear this morning how Jesus is steering us away from the propensity to refine our abilities of judgment and towards trusting in God’s Grace, letting it shape how we see ourselves and our world? Can I accept how God’s grace sets us free from the constant tennis match of judgment – not because accountability isn’t important, it is crucial – but because it isactually liberating when you become aware of sin as something that unifies us in our incompleteness, rather than a weapon to be used against your so-called opponent. Jesus wants more than just a revolution, he seeks a revolution of our hearts, pushing us to see the humanity and divinity in each of us so deeply that we decide to leave the judgment to God, transforming the world in steps – from vengeance and the settling of scores to justice and then, finally, to a world filled with Grace – wasteful, expansive, amazing Grace.