Sexual Morality and Social Control: Yeshua Preaches a Silent Liberating Parable about Sex

Readings for 5th Sunday of Lent: Isaiah 43: 16-21; Psalm 126: 1-6; Philemon 3: 8-14; John 8: 1-11

Did you ever wonder why religious leaders seem so preoccupied with sex?

I have.

I bring the question up, because today’s reading from the Gospel of John presents Yeshua as confronting that clerical obsession. I’m referring to the famous case of the woman caught in the act of adultery.

Before I get to that, however, think of the preoccupation itself.

Clerical Preoccupation with Sex

We witness it all over the place, don’t we? Clerics, it seems, constantly worry about a long list of cringe-worthy and curious topics that include abortion, contraception, transgenderism, homosexuality, pornography, masturbation, artificial insemination, sex before marriage, oral sex, vasectomy, divorce, priestly celibacy, male-only priests, and (I guess) pedophilia.

Moreover, the clergy’s own sexual failings never inhibit their volubility on those topics. I mean, the record shows that Catholic priests have rather regularly sexually molested little boys. Famous evangelicals have consorted with prostitutes of both genders. Yet, Catholic or Protestant, both continue to pronounce on the topics just listed as though they retained their long-lost moral authority to do so.

 Why?

I think it’s all about the social control that over centuries religious “leaders” stumbled upon with increasing clarity and emphasis. Here’s what I mean focusing on the Catholic tradition with which I’m most familiar and which, of course, also shaped Protestantism:

  1. To begin with, religion is a very powerful means of social control. That is, if religious authorities can convince people that the clergy’s understandings of life and morality are shared by God, they’ve won the day in terms of power over “the faithful.”
  2. This is where sex comes in. As the second most powerful (and arguably the most enjoyable) drive shared by human beings, there is virtually no human being who can refrain from sexual activity.
  3. Therefore, making all sexual acts sinful outside of marriage (and “mortally” sinful – i.e., deserving of hell) the church guaranteed that every church member would sin and need absolution (which only the clergy was empowered to give.)
  4. Without that absolution, the church taught (infallibly) everyone who thought sexual thoughts or performed sexual acts (looking, touching, fornicating, committing adultery) would be tortured eternally in hell’s Lake of Fire.
  5. Even married couples would suffer such fate if they engaged in contraceptive acts.
  6. And since only the clergy and their Sacrament of Penance (confession) could save people from that horrible fate, the clergy possessed God-like power over the lives and fates of believers.

Incredibly, within my own lifetime, Catholics believed all of that – literally! Consequently, Saturday nights in any given parish would find long lines of people waiting to confess their sins in order to receive the absolution necessary for them to “save their souls” from a vengeful sex-obsessed God. Wow!

Yeshua & the Adulterous Woman

In Yeshua’s day, his religion’s clergy played a similar game. They had established themselves as the sex police. Only, instead of sending sexual transgressors to hell, 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 but her husband.

Yeshua calls attention to such hypocrisy and double standards in today’s gospel episode. You probably remember the story.

The Master 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 Yeshua’s opponents!

“Master,” they say, “This woman has just been caught in the act of adultery. As you know, our scriptures say we should stone her. But what do you say?”

Here Yeshua’s 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, Yeshua 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 Yeshua 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 Yeshua 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 Yeshua 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. Was he reminding them of the common origin of men and women?

Both came from the dust, Yeshua might be saying without words. The creation stories in Genesis say both men and women were created from dirt 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, Yeshua 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.

If this is true, then Yeshua’s 18-word pronouncement offers his 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.

Conclusion

The conclusion from all of this seems clear to me. Human beings don’t need sex police. To regulate the field, it would be enough to simply say “Don’t use your God-given gift of sexuality in any way that hurts another. After all sex is a precious gift from God. Enjoy the pleasure it gives but never in a way that hurts someone else.” 

That may well have been Yeshua’s attitude too. His final comforting words to the woman in today’s Gospel episode indicate that.

Yes, I believe today’s story ended with the words, “Neither do I condemn you.”

And here I’m basing my judgment on one of the criteria used by The Jesus Seminar for separating Jesus’ words from the creations of the early church and evangelists like Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.

For Seminar participants, the more radical the pronouncement, the more likely it is that the words belong to Jesus himself. By the same token, the more conventional the words, the less likely they are to have come from Jesus’ own mouth. The words, “Go now and sin no more” seems pretty conventional to me.

What I’m saying is that the addition “Go now and sin no more” bears all the fingerprints of community elders (those clergy we’ve been focusing on) who were scandalized by the radicality of Yeshua’s response to the woman’s “sin.” They needed to tone down Yeshua’s words for fear of losing social control.

Meanwhile, “Neither do I condemn you,” is beautifully radical and characteristic of the Compassionate Yeshua.

Now that is Good News for us sexual beings.

Published by

Mike Rivage-Seul's Blog

Emeritus professor of Peace & Social Justice Studies. Liberation theologian. Activist. Former R.C. priest. Married for 45 years. Three grown children. Six grandchildren.

12 thoughts on “Sexual Morality and Social Control: Yeshua Preaches a Silent Liberating Parable about Sex”

  1. Finally! All that brainwshing and needless guilt trips that we got as students in Catholic schools can be put to rest and common sense can replace it. Thank you.

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      1. Thanks for your reply, Mike. I’m still here — at age 89. Lots of physical problems
        but, being Gael Irish, I’m just grateful that the mind and the tongue still work!
        You have gotten better, Mike. Lots of fodder in the RC and U.S. Congress to work
        with. You do it so admirably. Lost track of our mutual friend, Jim C. a few years ago. If he is still alive (to your knowledge) would love to catch up and say ‘hello.’ We had a wonderful correspondence for the years that it lasted. He did say that he feared that he might be flirting with Alzheimer’s.
        Alice

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  2. This topic has always intrigued me. Why the clearly obsessive preoccupation of Catholic clerics with the topic of sex? Obsessed by what one can’t have? The overwhelming power and fear of the 6th commandment?

    And much of what I have read from those supposed “experts” who have commented on the clergy sexual abuse scandal have suggested that it is not celibacy or any rules prohibiting sexual activity for priests but rather “clericalism” or abuse of power which has contributed to this tragedy. Why then is the abuse of power, patriarchy, whatever, channeled in deviant sexual ways? Why sexual abuse?

    In my work advocating for LGBTQA persons I interviewed many priests.
    Because lots of people, including priests , equate being “gay” with sex (which is ridiculous) it was obvious these conversations were uncomfortable on that basis if no other. Not an insignificant number of these priests were gay themselves, kept that quiet but were known to have partners.
    And then condemning young folks who “come out?” Is it any wonder why so many have left? Frankly it amazes me the number who choose to stay.
    The hypocrisy, the stunted psychological development, it’s all so pathetic!
    I did a less than stellar job in guiding my two children on issues of sex, one of whom is gay. I attribute that uncomfortableness/ineptness on my part to the unhealthy way in which I was taught to think about sex…the guilt filled, Catholic way!

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  3. Thanks for reflections on stoning as punishment for female adultery. I would note that the sadistic practice of stoning, nowadays, only seems to be occurring in regions where unelected US government authorities have been funding radical Islamists to create war zones, and all the atrocities that accompany that.

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  4. So far as Catholic and Protestant traditions play into laws governing sexual behaviors: In my experience (and reading of history), both religion and sexuality are frequently used as political tools. A good question to ask: Am I observing politics, or religion, or religion used in the service of politics?

    Roman Catholicism tends to be very hierarchical and top-down government controlled by aristocracy. Anglican traditions are similar. Calvinist / Huguenot / Puritan Congregational traditions have more of an egalitarian rule of law, instead of mandate-from-king mindset. In that Protestant space, laws governing marital partnerships are intended to keep affairs from getting “messy”. A good example was the lawsuit against William Hurt back in the day.

    I have forgotten how to post links, but if you search William Hurt + Buffalo News you can find it. Hurt’s ex wanted alimony and child support, but there was no binding legal agreement to back up her claim of common law marriage:

    https://buffalonews.com/news/an-oscar-winning-trial-live-in-case-one-of-sex-love-money/article_30509ab4-35a1-5f36-b3d6-7d6543cff1fe.html

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  5. An example from Merrie Olde England in the 1600s would be the actress and courtesan Nell Gwynn, mistress mother of Catholic King Charles II and mother of two of his seven children by various women not his wife.

    Nell is reported to have died of sequelae of syphilis, an disease very common among the promiscuous European aristocracy. The Puritans noted that if you restricted your adventures to one uninfected legal partner, the chances for you and your offspring were much improved. Somehow that message has gotten lost in anti-Puritan campaigns.

    Nell Gwynn was quite a character, and once emphasized to a hostile mob surrounding her carriage
    that she was the King’s *Protestant Whore*, not a “Catholic Whore” (which would have referred to a foreign French aristocrat, who was also a mistress of the married King in “Restoration” England).

    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nell_Gwyn

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