A scrap of scripture. Here is the text of a reflection I led today as the basis for a retreat with our ordinands.
The basic theme was ‘Who is your Jesus?’ In other words, what is the image of the person of Jesus, who shapes your own faith and spirituality, and also influences your vision of what it means to be a Christian and what it means also to be a pastor.
My reflection is called: A scrap of scripture.
In the opening verses of John’s Gospel chapter 8, we find a story where the religious leaders bring to Jesus (in the temple, no less) a woman who they say has been caught ‘in the very act of adultery’.
It’s highly significant I think that much scholarship suggests that this text does not fit here. That’s a part of my sense of who Jesus is: he just doesn’t fit, in any of the formulae, any of the structures and any of the smooth arrangements we make.
Almost all published versions of the New Testament place this segment in brackets, or in some way identify it as ‘irregular’ or not present in some early manuscripts and so forth.
I am happy to agree with the suggestion that this piece of text (a scrap of scripture) may originally have had a different origin. Maybe John didn’t write it. Maybe it wasn’t part of the editorial schema that structures this Gospel. If that is so, it means that here we have a kind of floating text, a scrap: maybe in the very life of the church they didn’t know where to put it! But for all that, the early church leaders preserved this ‘scrap’ and did not discard it: they may not have been sure where to place it, or for some it didn’t quite fit in. Still, it has survived and comes to us as a deeply challenging story—the story of a deeply confronting Jesus.
So what does this scrap tell me? It’s a strange and confronting story. It’s a story of the religious self-righteousness that was the very essence of my formation as a Christian—Except that here Jesus the one and only person who opposes that Christian/religious self-righteousness.
The religious lot bring this woman in, and demand that Jesus agrees to condemn her. Will he, or won’t he, uphold the law of Moses? That’s their ploy.
I would like you to picture this drama, this situation.
I imagine the woman cast here into the midst of our group.
Very likely she will have collapsed to the ground, seeking to hide her face from the accusing stares of these men surrounding her
Now let us stand here, now, and imagine that you are Jesus.
What are you feeling?
Seething with rage, I would be.
And I imagine that might well be why he stooped down to write on the ground. Counting to ten, or a hundred!
But then let me go a step further. It appears that Jesus does not immediately care for her. See what he does: for quite a long time, he does not speak to her.
First, he speaks to them: and here he begins with the fundamental injustice of this situation. She, and only she, is caught in the act of adultery. I thought it took two to tango! And if she was caught ‘in the very act’, that means her accusers know who her partner was.
Only she is to blame. The man is left out of it altogether: there is no suggestion here that the man has committed adultery! (So often this is how it was: it was considered that a man who had sex with a woman outside his marriage relationship had been seduced by the woman.)
But Jesus goes deeper than that. He does not even mention that injustice. He goes to the heart of this judgmental attitude, which creates the injustice in the first place.
He agrees that she (and later we realise that it also means all of us—yes all of us) can be condemned: but only by whoever is without sin. And whoever is without sin may cast the first stone. What they all know is that it is only God who is without sin. And God does not cast that stone.
Her accusers flee. Then Jesus speaks to her. ‘Neither do I condemn you.’ And with a word of incredible power, he says: ‘Go and sin no more.’
Sin is acknowledged, not denied. But it is acknowledged within the context of grace: Stunning, gutsy, liberating grace.
Jesus deals with the injustice, but not by opposing it front-on, here. He addresses the attitudes that create and perpetuate and pretend to justify that injustice. And with honesty, with courage, with truth, he confronts and repudiates those attitudes, and in this way he sets her, and us, free.
What is especially significant here, for those of us who accept the role of pastors and carers, is the way Jesus lifts up and asserts the responsibility of this woman for her own future. When she is told, ‘Go and sin no more’, Jesus is recognizing that she is both a free and responsible person. She has the freedom to make her own moral choices. She has the dignity and responsibility of a free agent.
I have often observed to our students that in pastoral office we find there are any number of people who will gladly give to us responsibility for their lives. And we are tempted to accept it, in the name of care. We must refuse it: refuse to take away their moral freedom and their dignity as adult persons. We must, rather, insist on their freedom and responsibility, and support and assist them in that.
This scrap of scripture presents many challenges to us: I think the Church has always found it hard to accommodate this confronting, gracious Jesus. Even so, I am glad this same Church has persisted with and retained this ‘scrap of scripture’ and has continued to wrestle with what it means to follow this confronting, gracious, freedom-affirming Jesus.