Rereading the Story of the Woman Caught in Adultery

After the Parish Fete ended tonight, I attended (still dusty and tired from my duties in the carpark) the Vigil Mass for the 5th Sunday in Lent.

The Gospel was, of course, that of “The Woman Caught In Adultery” from John 8. It is a fascinating story, and full of Johannine dramatic tension (including his characteristic way of reducing the essential drama to a dialogue between Jesus and only one other person in the final verses). But surely it loses some of its impact because we today hear of an act of adultery and say to ourselves “STONING? for ADULTERY? How unjust! Of course Jesus was right not to condemn her.” We are on Jesus’ side because we don’t think (contrary to ancient Judaism and modern Islam) that adultery is such a serious or shameful crime that the death penalty should be applied.

An example is the “Reflection” that appeared in the parish bulletin. All I know of the source of this reflection is that at the bottom it said “(c) GIA”. (Here is the full “Reflection” published on the website of another Australian parish.) It is obviously American in its origin. What got me is this rather self-congratulatory paragraph:

Some of you may remember a while back when the news media ran a picture of a woman accused of adultery buried up to her neck, exposing her face and head for a pummeling with rocks. It was the first time many of us existentially understood what it meant to be ‘stoned to death’. We have nothing like that in our culture.

I don’t remember the photograph – although obviously it appeared in the US press. Obvious too was the fact that this stemmed from somewhere in the world where a strict and merciless Sharia law is applied. But do we really “have nothing like that in our culture”?

Run with me on this – and don’t stone me for thinking it. Just try this out for how it might revitalise the story for us.

The lawyers and the reporters brought a priest who had been caught in child abuse; and making him stand before all of them, they said to him, “Teacher, this priest of yours was caught in the very act of committing abuse. Now our law and society commands us to stone such man. Now what do you say?” They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at him.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.”

Now, I know that adultery differs greatly from sexual abuse against minors in the major respect that we can generally assume the willingness of the adulterers, whereas child sexual abuse is an horrendous crime against the dignity and will and innocence of the victim. So there is not a strict parallel here.

But ask yourselves this: Do we really “have nothing like that in our culture”? How would you write the ending of this story if the accused in the story was a priest caught in child abuse and not a woman caught in adultery?

I am one of those who was, by Jesus statement “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone” is must ask myself whether I can maintain my self-righteous indignation and whether it is possible to show mercy to those whom our society truly (and perhaps rightly) regards as “the chief of sinners”.

For the fact is that Jesus’ terrible and appalling mercy has been shown to me also.

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29 Comments

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29 responses to “Rereading the Story of the Woman Caught in Adultery

  1. Terry Maher (Past Elder)

    Sorry, there is no Fifth Sunday in Lent, it’s Passion Sunday aka Judica from the Introit and the Gospel reading is John 8:46-59.

    Oh well your analysis also omits any reference to repentance or contrition and its relationship to “forgiveness”.

    But it’s a nice way to gloss over clerical sexual abuse and keep humming The Catholic Church The Catholic Church The Catholic Church contra the catholic church.

    • It was certainly not my intention in any way “to gloss over clerical sexual abuse”. I resent your implication that it was Terry. You know me better than that. Some of your comments lately have been particulary low.

      My intention was to magnify the audacious mercy and forgiveness of Christ. it is my contention that we do not properly appreciate this story because we dot not think adultery a particularly serious sin any more. It was, however, ranked with apostacy and murder by the early church.

      I therefore sought to highlight the mercy of Christ and our own hypocrisy by suggesting an alternative scenario that would shock us as much as it shocked the original readers.

      As for repentance, there is nothing in John’s text that indicated that the woman repented of her crime. Jesus’ mercy was certainly not conditional upon it.

  2. Matthias

    I read also Schutz that it was Christ’s mercy and His Forgiveness that we should be looking at ,as well as the self righteousness of the accusers . And it is interesting that Jesus in this passage does not talk to the woman about repenting of her sin.Perhaps the fact that she had a) been caught-where was her co-adulterer? b/ came close to paying the price as demanded in the Law c/ Met and was spoken to by Jesus-we hope caused her to repent of her sins.
    A minister we had in the Church of Christ-a friend of ours,who was also a Hebrew and Greek scholar- made a point that perhaps the woman’s partner was one of the Pharisees,hence the reason why the woman was brought in and not the two of them.
    Hope the BCP ( and that is not the Book of Common Prayer ,but Schutz’s parish) Fete went well.

  3. Terry Maher (Past Elder)

    I did not imply that it was. Once again, in the world of Catholicism where nothing is necessarily what it seems but is endlessly debated as to what it REALLY is, This is That. I stated nothing whatever about your intention, just that the statement glosses over clerical abuse. Whether you intend that gloss or not is another matter, a matter I did not address.

    But since you bring it up, let this be clear against once again the Catholic labyrinth of You said This which is That so you said That: No, I do not think you intended in any way to gloss over clerical sexual abuse.

    Or more comprehensively, you do in fact gloss over clerical sexual abuse by the statement but unintentionally so, based on the a priori that nothing ever may present an objection to The Catholic Church The Catholic Church The Catholic Church.

    Actually I expected a knee-jerk reaction that clerical sexual abuse is not an exclusively Catholic phenomenon, so in case that were coming up next, let’s get it out of the way. It isn’t, it happens in all denoms, including mine, and constitutes a fundamental objection to no denom.

    I am familiar with clerical sexual abuse to an extent I will not recount here. It is a wrong with hugely serious even fatal consequences. There is absolutely nothing about whatever the state of the relationship between the perpetrator and God which diminishes that or the need to address those consequences as well as their potential for further occurrence in this world in which it is our charge to carry the Gospel.

    It is precisely because I do NOT think you intend to gloss over the seriousness of the matter that I attempted to point out that diverting attention from the matter to condition of the perpetrator before God, which is God’s business and not ours, in fact does so gloss.

    • Then, may I ask, whether it “was his intention or not”, do you believe that John’s story “glosses over” the sin of adultery? I just ask the question.

      You will not hear me using as any kind of defence that “it happens in other denominations too”. This may be true, but it is a terrible indictment upon the Church that it HAPPENS AT ALL among us.

      In his recent letter to the Church in Ireland, the Pope too quickly dismisses this defence. He writes at the very beginning “It is true, as many in your country have pointed out, that the problem of child abuse is peculiar neither to Ireland nor to the Church. NEVERTHELESS, the task you now face is to address the problem of abuse that has occured within the Irish Catholic community, and to do so with courage and determination.”

      IOW, “Don’t give me that”.

  4. Terry Maher (Past Elder)

    To answer your question re John — no. Because the passage is not about adultery or repentance therefrom. Rather, the sin of adultery is what the teachers of the Law wanted to make the point, not Jesus. Catholic theology is full of “Let’s put This in place of That and see what Jesus says about This”.

    He was about to fulfill the Law. The Law stands; He, not she, would pay the price of death for her adultery. Does this mean that there is now no Law against adultery? Does this mean we say to adulterers, or committers of any other sin, that’s OK, we’re sinners too, so we really have nothing to say to you about it?

    Everybody loves to fixate on part of what Jesus said, in this case, Neither do I condemn thee, go thy way. He also said, And sin no more.

    It should also be pointed out that this also does not mean that civil courts have no function or that the law being spoken of is civil law, that the courts should not pass verdicts and punishments because Jesus said Neither do I condemn thee and the judge and jurymen are sinners too. The Law, as distinct from the law, is at once civil, moral, and ceremonial. The law isn’t. Sexual offenders should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law regardless of whether they wear funny collars or not.

    • And nothing I said denied that “sexual offenders should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law regardless of whether they wear funny collars or not”. Really, you are being contrary.

      My point was no different from John’s. “Neither do I condemn thee; Go and sin no more”.

      I was not making the passage out to be about either the sin of adultery or the sin of sexual abuse, but rather about the audacious mercy of Jesus.

      I also wanted to put an end to any smug idea that “we have nothing like stoning in our culture”.

      Again, PE, you have admirably proved my point.

  5. Terry Maher (Past Elder)

    Falsch. It may come as news to those under the unfortunate to say the least influence of the Catholic Church, but the audacious mercy of Jesus, as you call it, is to those to whom the Gospel is rightly preached the most obvious point. Unfortunately, what Luther wrote is more applicable now than when he wrote it, that what should have been the most obvious thing about the Catholic Church became the most obscure.

    The fact is, the woman taken in adultery is not at all an applicable scenario, because the sexual predators were not taken in anything at all due to the cover -up actions of their superiors, in or out of the Catholic Church, until the cry of the victims became too loud to ignore. Until then, the message was Go thy way, nothing happened.

  6. Christine

    Oh well your analysis also omits any reference to repentance or contrition and its relationship to “forgiveness”.

    I think that’s missing the wider picture of this reading.

    It’s really more about how some were trying to take Jesus to task. If Jesus refused to condemn the woman they could haul him before the court and accuse him of not upholding the Law of Moses. If Jesus condemned the woman they could accuse him of not having mercy.

    But how well the Lord answered them. Let he who is without sin cast the first stone. Each and every one of us can become a part of that reading, and each and every one of us would have to walk away as well, because we too are not without sin, whether it be adultery or something else.

    The Lord sends the woman away, forgiven and with a call to repentance — go and sin no more. Again a message for us as well.

    Christine

  7. Terry Maher (Past Elder)

    Incredible. Let’s put it out here instead of buried in these damned embedded WordPress comments.

    The passage from John is utterly inapplicable to the situation of Catholic clerical sexual abuse, because unlike the woman, they were caught in nothing at all until their victims became too numerous and too vocal to ignore, before which the message was Go thy way, nothing happened.

    • I never said that the story was applicable “to the situation of Catholic clerical sexual abuse”. I was using the example of a modern crime that demanded a modern stoning in order to drive home the mercy of Christ. I sometimes think you would have made a terrific serpant in the garden, PE, the way you play with words. At the very least we see that it is you who are fixated on one particular point and persist in dragging evrery conversation into your particular orbit. Am I the only one getting a bit sick of this?

  8. Christine

    Huh???? I’ll have to assume that prior post from PE has nothing to do with what I said because — it has nothing at all to do with what I posted!

    The reading speaks for itself.

    Christine

  9. Christine

    There are times when PE’s beaviour just shows he isn’t listeneng, Christine. He just likes the sound of his own keyboard.

    Sigh. Could well be, David. One promise I made to myself when I came back to the Catholic Church was that I was not going to return to Lutheran blogs to beat them over the head with it.

    Christine

    • Terry Maher (Past Elder)

      Sorry, I did not become Lutheran over being Catholic. I left what became of the Catholic Church was not Catholic but born of dissent from it which it now passes off as Catholicism and it isn’t. I came here not from Catholic blogs, which apart from Dave Armstrong’s I never frequent, but from encountering a former Lutheran pastor on a Lutheran blog who it seems found this pseudo-Catholicism an answer to questions he could not answer in his prior faith and maintains the pleasant fiction that what he has found is Catholicism when it is not.

  10. Just a technical point. Yesterday was the 5th Sunday in Lent. The reading was John 8: 1-11.

    They may, of course, name the Sunday differently in Terry’s church, and have different readings.

    Passion Sunday (or Palm Sunday) is next week, and is named because we read the whole of the passion account. I’m on first reading. 🙂

    • Terry Maher (Past Elder)

      Passion Sunday is not Palm Sunday. Passion Week is not Holy Week. Passion Sunday is sometimes called by the nickname “Judica” from the Latin first word of its Introit. The Gospel reading for Passion Sunday, call it Judica or not, is John 8:46-59, every year.

      “My church” preserves the historic lectionary. “My church” also has a good deal of revisionists who poison this with contemporary worship from Rome and Willow Creek, abandoning the historic lectionary for a Vatican II For Lutherans pile of junk or at the other extreme no lectionary at all.

      • I see! My apologies – I took your original remark as a comment and didn’t realise it was intended as an insult.

        A blessed Holy Week to you.

        • Terry Maher (Past Elder)

          It was not intended as an insult. The confusion is common with the jacked up calendar of Vatican II. In fact, the calendar from one of my own church body’s seminaries which is on my kitchen wall identifies “The Sunday of the Passion” with Palm Sunday, since it only follows the miserable stinking revisionist postconciliar Vatican II calendar in a wannabe version derived from the wannabe RCL (Revised Common Lectionary) used by the heterodox churches with some sort of liturgical pretences. Fortunately, both that hunk of junk and the real calendar and lectionary are available in our service books, and a pastor may choose whichever.

    • In the Traditional Latin Rite, the Sunday before Palm Sunday is called Passion Sunday, and the Gospel involves an attempted stoning of a different Person and for entirely different reasons (interesting contrast, come to think of it). Though Past Elder speaks of the proceedings at Lutheran conventicles, not the T.L.M., but the Gospel reading is apparently the same.

    • Terry Maher (Past Elder)

      That is because they *are* the same. Unlike Vatican II, we did not junk a lectionary tradition coming from St Jerome’s Comes for something we thought was a good idea — well, that is, until some lunatics among us decided Vatican II was a good idea and started following suit, running after postconciliar Rome like some other lunatics among us run after Willow Creek, although we did not have to wait through 40 years of repression before being allowed by the synod president to use it but only if we swore allegiance to the Brave New Order. It exists side by side as the “One Year Lectionary”, aka the “historic lectionary” with a Vatican II For Lutherans “Three Year Lectionary”, when both are not tossed aside for another form of Contemporary Worship, Willow Creek For Lutherans. So yes, Passion Sunday and Week as distinct from Palm Sunday and Week are the same among traditional Lutherans as among traditional Catholics, although I think the nickname Judica from the Introit is more a Lutheran usage. German Latin spells it Judika, and in the vernacular it is Richte.

      As to conventicles, I shall assume you mean the word in its original but obsolete meaning from the Latin conventiculum, a small meeting, rather than, being the last real Archbishop of Canterbury and all, the meaning it acquired of a secret or illegal meeting, read worship, of Protestant dissenters from the ludicrous state Church of England.

  11. Terry Maher (Past Elder)

    Incredible. You say you wanted to use a modern crime, clerical sexual abuse, that demanded a modern stoning to drive home the mercy of Christ, which you did by substituting that sin for the sin in the passage from John re adultery, and you say that is not making the John passage applicable to clerical sexual abuse. You say the passage from John shows that every one of us would have to walk away from this because we are sinners too, be it re adultery or something else, that therein is a message for us all, in a thread about clerical sexual abuse, and say the saying the passage is not applicable is unrelated to what you wrote.

    Then you say I play with words. Stunning.

    • “You say…that every one of us would have to walk away from this because we are sinners too”

      Nope. I am not saying that we would walk away from this. In fact, I changed my original post to leave what would happen up to you. Would you, if you were in that situation, and if the one accused was a child sex abuser rather than an adulterer, walk away? Or would you throw your stone?

      I’m not answering that question for you, PE.

    • Terry Maher (Past Elder)

      No you didn’t. Do you read your own stuff? The “you” who used the phrase “walk away” was die Christine.

      As to the rest, there is no answer because there is no question, just more of this interminable Catholic word play. “Would I”, “if”, and then you want an answer, and I suppose applying the John passage re the adulteress through various substitutions to the question of clerical sexual abuse is, as above, not applying the John passage re the adulteress to the question of clerical sexual abuse.

      Your newest post above is beyond laughable, with the clown quoted going on about “possible”, “uncertainty”, “misunderstanding”, “bad translation”, “not enough copies”, excuses, excuses, excuses.

      Speaking of stones, why don’t you read Luke 17:1-4.

  12. Christine

    No you didn’t. Do you read your own stuff? The “you” who used the phrase “walk away” was die Christine.

    Gott hilf mir!! I wasn’t referring to the sexual abuse scandals! You are taking my comments entirely out of context. I was referring to the scribes et al. who could not throw the first stone because they, too, were sinners. I was attempting to bring out that the woman’s adultery was actually the secondary part of this reading, the first being about the hypocrisy of those who were trying to trap Jesus and that if any one of us had been standing there we could not have thrown the first stone either because we, too, are sinners.

    Nothing, nothing whatsoever to do with those who should be prosecuted if they have committed crimes against children.

    Got it?

    Christine

  13. Terry Maher (Past Elder)

    No I don’t got it. Only in a Catholic environment, or a lunatic asylum, can a passage be applied as a model for our behaviour to a situation and a basis for understanding Jesus’ behaviour in a situation, which situation is not the one in the passage, and then when someone says the situations are not comparable be told oh it was not about applying one to the other.

  14. A further note on Passion/Palm Sunday. Apparently the two names represent a conflict between the Gallican and the Roman tradition. The Gallican church called it Palm Sunday and focused on the entry into Jerusalem; the Roman church – as can be seen from the sermons of Leo the Great (5th Century) – called it Passion Sunday and began the readings of the Passion. When the two traditions were merged, the Roman readings and the Gallican name stuck to the 6th Sunday in Lent, and the name Passion Sunday got moved back a week, beginning the week of Passiontide.

    Isn’t history fascinating?