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 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.
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:
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- Even married couples would suffer such fate if they engaged in contraceptive acts.
- 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.
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.