Readings for 5th Sunday of Lent: Is. 43:16-21; Ps. 126:1-6; Phil. 3: 8-14; Jn. 8: 1-11.
Not long ago, Catholic journalist and historian, Gary Wills coined an insightful phrase, “The Big Crazy.” Yes, he was talking about the pedophilia scandal. But his point was more general than that. Wills was referring to the Church’s insane obsession with a long list of cringe-worthy and curious topics that for him included “masturbation, artificial insemination, contraception, sex before marriage, oral sex, vasectomy, homosexuality, gender choice, abortion, divorce, priestly celibacy, male-only priests.”
The list is curious because today’s Gospel reading shows that Jesus didn’t share such prudish concern. And this despite the fact that the religious leaders of his day leaned in that direction – at least regarding women and adultery. Consequently, in the eyes of the priests and scribes of his day, Jesus would have been far too liberal, understanding and forgiving of sexual frailty – far too feminist. His attitude seemed to be: “What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.”
Here’s what I mean: Jewish law punished adultery with death by stoning. That was a biblical requirement. However, the Jewish patriarchy applied that law differently to men and women. A man, they said, committed adultery only when he slept with a 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.
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. He is the friend of prostitutes and drunkards.
But instead of falling into their trap, Jesus simply preaches a silent parable. He first scribbles on the ground. Only subsequently does he 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 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 even in the fraught field of sexuality. 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.
And that brings us back to Gary Will’s “Big Crazy.” 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 any sexual matters. They, after all, are the guilty 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’ relative silence, forgiveness and compassion?
Jesus’ mime also directs all of us to reconsider our double standards and preconceptions about men and women in general. It reverses a prayer every first century Jewish man was to 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.
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 recognized the equality of men and women. He recognized that what’s good for the goose is good for the gander.
That proverb has incredibly wide application, doesn’t it?