A demonstration was held outside the Dorchester Hotel in London yesterday after the Sultan of Brunei – the owner of the hotel – and his regime passed a ‘death by stoning’ law as punishment for homosexuality in their country. Watching the TV News last night, I noticed that one of the protesters carried a placard which read: ‘Let him who is without sin cast the first stone’. I’m not sure if the protester was aware of it but the origin of this, now well-known, declaration is Jesus – in today’s Gospel story – when he challenged a group of men who wanted a woman stoned to death.
Preceding this encounter in St John’s Gospel, we learn that the people dragging the poor woman before Jesus – the scribes and Pharisees, the religious officials of Judaism – have been plotting to arrest Jesus. Now they seek to gather evidence against him by posing a question intended as a trap. They drag an unfortunate and humiliated woman before him who had been caught committing adultery and they question Jesus on what should be done with her.
(Notice how there is not a word about the man even though the Law was quite explicit that both should suffer the death penalty.)
If Jesus suggests that the woman should be released, he would be violating the ancient Law of Moses and thus undermining his standing in the community. On the other hand, if he suggests that the Law should be upheld and the woman put to death, he’s is in trouble with the Romans who have taken away from the Jewish people the right to execute people.
As we’ve heard, Jesus avoids the trap. At first he says nothing and just starts writing (or doodling) on the ground. After they persisted with their question, Jesus, finally, spoke to say: if there is anyone here who has never sinned before, he can be the first to stone the woman. And then he resumes writing. (By the way, this is the only evidence we have of Jesus ever writing.)
We are given no details about what Jesus wrote in the dust. Some people suggest that he may have been a device to give himself time to think; others that he spelling out the sins of some of the men; and others again that he may have been laying out the names of the men’s mistresses … but who knows? Whatever he wrote, his words and action challenge the motives of the woman’s accusers. He knows that they are not really interested in defending the Law of Moses or the woman’s life but are just using her to trap him.
Then, beginning with the oldest (perhaps the wisest among them because of his age?), the men walk away and leave the woman alone with Jesus. And, as we’ve heard, Jesus does not condemn her. He gently sends her on her way, simply encouraging her to avoid future sin.
If you believe, as the Church teaches, that God speaks directly to each of us when the Scriptures are read in church, what is Jesus saying to you and me through his encounter with these officials and that poor woman?
For me, three things come to mind, You may find these helpful or, if not, they may spur you into drawing your own conclusions:
I think, first of all, that the response of Jesus to those who accused the woman is a warning to us to resist the temptation to pass judgement on others. Not an easy thing to resist! However, Jesus is quite clear about this: ‘Judge, not’, he says, ‘and you will not be judged yourselves’. (St Matthew 7:1). We all are sinners and unworthy to judge the sins of others, comforting it may be, at times, to see their faults as greater than our own. In the Lord’s eyes, we simply are not qualified to ‘cast stones’ at another. We have to leave all judgement to God.
The second is to question if I am guilty, as the Scribes and Pharisees were, of demeaning or humiliating another person. Is my behaviour – in speech or action – abusive of another? Do I look down, judge or reject an entire person because of their faults? It’s all too easy to unconsciously do this but it is an abuse of power and, maybe, even status which, I think, Our Lord flatly rejects. To demean, abase or humiliate another is, surely, not Christian?
Thirdly, what if you or I were dragged before Jesus, as the adulterous woman was, and had our worst sins or mistakes exposed? How would he respond to our humiliation? Would he be as merciful in dealing with us as he was with her? Well, we can take heart: in this season of Lent we specifically remember that he lived and died to make us understand that God is merciful, and that this mercy has no end. As the woman in the story discovered, no sin of mine, however shameful, is greater than God’s love. Thanks be to God!
Holy Name, Jesmond
7 April 2019