There is an extremely popular story that the gospel writer John shares in the 8th chapter of his biography of Jesus. It’s a story that takes place on the heels of a weeklong Jewish festival. It was here that a woman caught sleeping with a man who wasn’t her husband was dragged by religious leaders to the feet of Jesus for judgement. Hopefully, you’re thinking: doesn’t it take two to tango? This woman was thrown in the dirt and publicly accused of a crime! Where is her “partner in crime” – the man?!?!?! John is a brilliant story teller. His writing has created a great tension between justice and injustice. The woman is guilty of a crime by 1st century Jewish standards, but is her treatment by these Jewish leaders just? Does their callous disregard for her humanity and blatant double standard negate the legitimacy of her criminal actions? After all, 1st century law favored men over women. How would Jesus, the hero of John’s story, respond?
As I stated above, this story takes place on the tail end of a Jewish festival. This was the last of their Fall feasts, and Jewish people from all over would gather in the town of Judea. They gathered to pray that the Winter months would bring rain for the harvest so that they wouldn’t starve in the Spring. It was a time for piety by day and feasting and celebration by night. Jewish people would spend the night in tents for the weeklong festival. There was music, dancing and probably a few instances of too much wine leading to other mischief. The religious leaders at this festival spent some of their time teaching the Holy Scriptures, specifically writings about YHWH’s promises to sustain their crops, like in the 17th chapter of the prophet Jeremiah’s book. I imagine it to be kind of like church camp. Anyone who has ever been to a youth camp knows that over a week’s time, you can expect to find at least one or two teenage couples who wander off together for a time of close fellowship in the woods. It was no different for these adults feasting and camping together. Someone was bound to wind up laying down in a tent they shouldn’t have been in. It probably wasn’t hard for these religious leaders to find a pawn to use in their latest attempt to pit the revolutionary Jewish Rabbi, Jesus, against traditional Jewish law.
According to John, Jesus didn’t make a grand appearance at the festival. He showed up a little late, and didn’t start teaching until midway through it. He was the most popular and infamous Rabbi of his time, so his presence caused quite a stir. The crowd wondered if he was a good man or a deceiving false prophet. The religious leaders wanted to find an excuse to turn all of the people against him, and put him to death. I’m sure one or more of the religious ruling class had the brilliant idea that if they could juxtapose Jesus’ teachings against Jewish law and order, they could turn the masses against him. As the festival was coming to an end, Jesus was teaching from the Torah to a large crowd of people, when religious leaders forced a walk of shame upon a woman and embarrassed her in front of her friends, family and community.
In order to witness his response, they told Jesus in front of this crowd that she was caught sleeping with a man who wasn’t her husband, stated what the law demanded be done to a woman such as her (execution by stoning) and then asked him what he thought should be done. Would this holy revolutionary, teacher of Jewish law and advocate for YHWH’s righteousness condemn this woman to death as the law demanded despite her tears, sadness, and shame? Again, we the readers, are pressed to see a dilemma. There is a tension between what is morally just and what is legally just. The debate being had about whether Jesus was a good man or a false prophet would be decided by how he chose to respond to this broken woman laying face down in the dust. The trap is set. Law has demands. Humanity has demands. Jesus is set in the middle of the two. Which side would he take? What would he say?
In John’s story Jesus doesn’t respond with words. He doesn’t immediately fire off arguments about interpretation of law or how wrong it is to use a human as a political weapon. He stoops down to write in the dust. He silently protests the violation of this woman’s human right to dignity. Then after his demonstration, he stands up and confronts the woman’s accusers. They asked Jesus a legal question. He responded with a human question of his own. He didn’t phrase it as a question, but it was a question none the less. Jesus said: Any of you who is without sin, cast the first stone. Which is to ask, which one of you has the human right to violate hers? There is another interesting tidbit about Jesus writing in the dust that the original readers of John’s biography would’ve known. As I mentioned earlier, Jeremiah 17 was one of the ancient writings that talked about God providing for the Jewish people. That chapter was likely one that these religious leaders would’ve been teaching that week. Well, Jeremiah also wrote in that same chapter these words: Those who leave You will be written in the dust because they have abandoned ADONAI.
What happened after Jesus kneels to protest, stood to make a statement and knelt down again? The religious proponents of “law and order” all turned and left. Could it be that Jesus’ silent demonstration showed them that by shaming this woman and stripping her of her dignity, they had abandoned the God who gave them the law to begin with?
I suppose it’s always been within our nature to put law, symbolism or ideology before human rights. It seems that Jesus believed the opposite. Everything written about Jesus presents him attempting to teach humanity that our obligation to one another is greater than our obligation to law. Love, equality and justice are greater than Nationalism, law or order. If a person or a group of persons is being denied basic human rights, then we as people are responsible to object and to act to restore justice to those people. Sometimes objections are demonstrations that interrupt or impose on our sensibilities, but so be it.
From a legal perspective, the right thing for Jesus to have done would’ve been to stone that woman. He didn’t. He ignored what was “legal” for the sake of what was just. Today we have people ignoring what is seen by some society as the patriotic thing to do in order to bring light to injustices suffered by human beings who live in our Nation. Many of the same people who celebrate that Jesus bent down to demonstrate grace and justice, throw stones at the young men who are making a similar demonstration for the justice and dignity of a people long denied either. Time has found Jesus on the right side of history. I imagine time will do the same for the young men standing/kneeling for human rights today.
What is an “acceptable” way to demonstrate for change in society?