It’s a shame so many stories from the Bible have become so familiar – so analyzed and homogenized – that we have lost both their meaning and power.
The Bible almost never, perhaps ever, tells us how to interpret and apply the multitude of puzzling, cryptic and sometimes absurdist portrayals of human weakness, duplicity, hypocrisy and outright stupidity.
The story of the woman caught in adultery (John 8:3-11) is certainly one of the most blatantly preposterous stories cleverly (or not so cleverly) disguised as a common morality tale.
A generation ago, a common term for a young woman who, in the eyes of the community at least, found herself with-child was accused of “getting herself pregnant”.
As a child, when I heard that (usually hushed) statement, I puzzled over how such an act of obvious carelessness could have occurred.
Never, at least in my hearing, was male culpability implied or legally pursued – or even mentioned.
The same mentality seems at work in these men so eager to judge – and condemn – and kill with their own hands – this young woman.
They obviously don’t want justice – if they did, there would be two parties under judgment, and they would stand before a court, not an indignant, bloodthirsty mob.
But not only is this Bible story so familiar that we can barely see it, the scene itself is like a scene from today’s typical news story.
How many times have we seen a group of men, clothed in authority and righteous indignation, publicly shame, ridicule and condemn a solitary woman – usually for some act she has no choice in (like ‘playing the woman card’) or, at minimum, shared responsibility for (like pregnancy or the termination of a pregnancy).
Mobs have their own rules.
Mobs dredge up the lowest and most raw common denominator of fear, rage and violence.
Members of a mob do things they would never do as individuals.
Mobs don’t commit adultery.
But even those, perhaps especially those, individually guilty of adultery (in thought or in deed, see Matthew 5:28) are eager to judge the sin of others from the safe anonymity of a crowd.
They might even, in a sacrificial sense, find some cleansing of their own sin by shedding the blood of someone else guilty of their own sin.
It takes some humility to recognize that each one of us is susceptible to the thought, if not the act, of any given sin.
Mobs have no such humility.
It takes someone, one person, to remind a mob that they too are individuals –and that this woman before them is far from alone in her sin.
The mob is not interested in the identity or guilt, or even the existence of the man involved in the adultery.
Was he one of them?
Was he a man they all knew?
It doesn’t even matter.
All that matters is that she committed adultery.
This is the scene that Jesus seems to wander into.
We all know, or think we know, what happens next.
They appear to ask Jesus what they should do.
“Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” (John 8:4-5)
We miss the point even further (and the direct statement from scripture) if we imagine that they are asking for his authoritative, legal opinion.
We are mistaken if we imagine that they would believe or accept his ‘legal’ opinion.
We forget, or deliberately choose not to acknowledge the fact that case after case, they ask Jesus for his opinion, not for legal insights but so they can accuse and condemn him as well (John 8:6).
Jesus would not condemn the law – or even their distorted and biased interpretation of it.
But he does require a shred of reflection – and humanity – from those who would so eagerly judge.
He allows for the law, but requires even more it than they do; only a righteous one is worthy to cast the first stone.
Apparently those who are not ‘righteous’ are still qualified to throw stones – just not the first one.
And then Jesus stoops down to write in the dust.
The Gospel writer doesn’t tell us what he wrote.
Perhaps it was the names of those guilty of the same sin; perhaps it was a verse from the Torah.
Either way, it was either obvious enough or too unimportant for the Gospel writer to record.
Like the Gospel writer, I too, don’t think it was important.
I believe Jesus stayed there in silent witness to the murderous hypocrisy, the guilt and shame of the young woman and the slowly dissipating rage of the crowd until every man, so eager to judge just a few minutes before, left without saying a word.
Jesus looks up, and seems almost surprised to see no accusers left.
With no one left to judge, Jesus closes the scene almost casually (John 8:11).
To reduce this all-too-familiar, universal and near-surreal story to a simplistic morality tale is its own kind of sin.
How many times have we seen, in every religion, this same religious-tinged gracelessness?
How many times have we seen – or even become – the one who, in God’s name, is not only eager to see blood, but also to have it on our own hands?
The feverish impulse is contagious and seems unstoppable.
And perhaps it is.
At least until that lone voice calls us to our deeper, truer selves.
And we too, slink away in silence.