Readings for 5th Sunday of Lent: Is. 43:16-21; Ps. 126:1-6; Phil. 3: 8-14; Jn. 8: 1-11.
Three years ago, President Obama reauthorized the Violence against Women Act of 1994. This time the bill was expanded to cover lesbian, transgender and bisexual women. It also recognized the special circumstances of Native American women and of immigrants who according to government statistics are more likely to be raped and/or beaten than other women.
Some of our Catholic bishops disagreed with the legislation. In part, they said recognizing the rights of LGBT women undermined the “meaning and importance of sexual difference.” The changes, they said, might be “. . . exploited for purposes of marriage redefinition.” After all, they reasoned, “. . . marriage is the only institution that unites a man and a woman with each other and with any children born from their union.”
All of that is important because in today’s gospel, Jesus quietly decrees his own Violence against Women legislation. Better put, he literally performs (acts out) his own Violence against Women anti-legislation. His defiance of biblical law marks out a position quite different from the one taken by the bishops just mentioned.
Here’s what I mean: Jewish law punished adultery with death by stoning. That was a biblical requirement – one that many Muslims today still honor in their fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible. However the Jewish patriarchy applied that law differently to men and women. A man, they said, committed adultery only when he slept with another married woman. But if he slept with a single woman, a widow, a divorced woman, a prostitute or a slave, he remained innocent. A woman, on the other hand committed adultery if she slept with anyone other than her husband.
Of course, great injustices were committed in the name of this law. Often rumors and outright lies led to the death of innocent women. In many cases, the ones throwing the stones of execution were men who had spent their whole lives deceiving their wives.
Jesus calls attention to such hypocrisy and double standards in today’s gospel episode. All the elements of last week’s very long parable of the Prodigal Son are here. Jesus is teaching in the temple surrounded by “the people” – the same outcasts, we presume, that habitually hung on his every word.
Meanwhile, the Scribes and Pharisees are standing on the crowd’s edge wondering how to incriminate such a man? As if ordained by heaven, an answer comes to them out of the blue. A woman is hustled into the temple. She’s just been caught in flagrante – in the very act of adultery. What luck for Jesus’ opponents!
“Master,” they say, “This woman has just been caught in the act of adultery. As you know, the Bible says we should stone her. But what do you say?” Here Jesus’ enemies suspect he will incriminate himself by recommending disobedience of the Bible’s clear injunction. After all, he is the compassionate one. He is especially known for his kindness towards women – and others among his culture’s most vulnerable.
But instead of falling into their trap, Jesus simply preaches a silent parable. He first scribbles on the ground. Only subsequently does he s speak — but only 18 words, “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”
A wordless parable . . . . What do you suppose Jesus was scribbling on the ground? Was he writing the names of the guilty hypocrites who had cheated on their wives? Was he writing the laws the Scribes and Pharisees were violating? Some say he was simply drawing figures in the dust while considering how to reply to his opponents?
The first two possibilities seem unlikely. How would this poor country peasant from Galilee know the names of the learned and citified Scribes and Pharisees? It is even unlikely that Jesus knew how to write at all. That too was the province of the Scribes. The third possibility – that Jesus was absent-mindedly drawing figures in the dust – is probably closer to the mark.
However, it seems likely that there was more to it than that. It seems Jesus was performing some kind of symbolic action – that mimed parable I mentioned. By scribbling in the dust, he was wordlessly bringing his questioners down to earth. He was reminding them of the common origin of men and women?
Both came from the dust, Jesus seems to say without words. The creation stories in Genesis say both men and women were created from dust and in God’s image – equal in the eyes of God. “In God’s image God created them. Man and woman created he them,” says the first creation account (Genesis 1:27). By scribbling in the dust, Jesus was symbolically moving the earth under the feet of the Scribes and Pharisees. He was gently but strongly asserting that they had no ground to stand on. They were hypocrites.
Then his 18 word pronouncement offers Jesus’ own standard for judging the guilt of others. According to that standard, one may judge and execute only if he himself is without sin. This, of course, means that no one may judge and execute another. All of us are sinful.
What genius in this silent parable! As usual, Jesus outsmarts his interlocutors. They ask him an incriminating question. He refuses to answer, but instead turns their own question against them. They want to know about guilty women and the patriarchal law governing their sexuality. Instead, Jesus’ scribbling redirects the question to something more basic – the very ground his opponents are standing upon and to God’s first law regarding human beings, both men and women. Equality precedes patriarchy and its law, Jesus says without even uttering a word.
And that brings us back to our Catholic bishops and their reasons for opposing the Violence against Women Act. As you recall, they were concerned about the “meaning and importance of sexual difference.” Jesus own Violence against Women Act points in the opposite direction – towards sexual similarity and the original unity of men and women that transcends biology.
Later on St. Paul will give clearer expression to Jesus’ basic insight. In today’s epistle, he claims that his understanding of everything has changed since he began living “in Christ.” In Galatians 3: 26-28, he’ll get even more specific. He’ll say “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:26-28).
Have the bishops thought about the implications of these biblical words in terms of same-sex marriage? If in Christ there are no males or females, but only persons, does that not mean that any human beings who love one another (regardless of their merely biological differences) may marry?
And finally, Jesus’ silent rearranging of “ground” along with his 18 words seem to call into question the very foundation of the bishops’ right to authoritatively pronounce on sexual matters. They, after all, are the ones who denied, covered-up, and excused sexual deviance on the part of the clergy they were responsible for overseeing – and whose overriding (public) concern has centered on sexual purity. Does that not dictate that the bishops and their priests have no ground to stand upon in the field of sexual morality? Isn’t it time for them to silently slink away along with their Scribe and Pharisee counterparts, and to replace judgmentalism with Jesus’ forgiveness and compassion?
Jesus’ silent assertion of gender equality along with the words Paul adds to Jesus’ mime direct all of us to reconsider our double standards and preconceptions about men and women. Paul’s words in Galatians are especially important. They reverse a prayer first century Jewish men would recite each morning. The prayer went, Blessed are you, Lord, for making me a Jew and not a Gentile, for making me free and not a slave, and for making me a man and not a woman.”
Certainly, Jesus was taught that prayer by his pious father, Joseph. Perhaps for most of his life, Jesus recited that prayer on a daily basis. But something must have happened to him to change his faith. We’ll never know what that “something” or someone was.
We do know however what happened to Paul; as he says this morning he entered “into Christ.” And that turned all his previous perceptions “to rubbish” – including evidently his fundamentalist understandings of biblical law like the one commanding the stoning of adulterous women or alleging the superiority of men.
After all, if Jesus thought like the Catholic bishops I mentioned, he would have thrown the first stone. He alone in that group was without sin. He would have thought, “Forgiving this woman will seem like condoning adultery. And condoning adultery might lead to abortions of the pregnancies that result. Not throwing the first stone will also lessen the authority of the Bible which clearly justifies punishing women for adultery. I’ve got to do it.”
Luckily for the woman taken in adultery (and for the rest of us), Jesus wasn’t a fundamentalist – or a Roman Catholic bishop. He was an opponent of Violence against Women.