Jesus Among Sinners
(My recent blogpost over at Whiteboard//Blip)
There she stood. She had been shamefully and publicly exposed as one committing adultery in a society that has only one outlet for sex: what we would call monogamous heterosexual marriage. Such qualifiers were hardly necessary in that Jewish patriarchal society where she was standing now: exposed; caught in the act.
There she stood. The pharisees had left one by one after Jesus had invited them to throw the first stone, but only if they themselves were without sin. She stood there, not only exposed but also abused. Abused by men who saw in the adulterous act no reason to be truly indignant over such horrible sin, but rather an occasion to trap their enemy, Jesus. The woman was merely being used as an instrument to attack someone who both fulfilled and transcended the law of Moses: “Well, if you are a rabbi who apparently knows the law better than us, let’s see how you deal with the obvious command to stone this adulterous woman.
The hypocrisy of the pharisees is evident and has two layers. First, they were adulterers themselves. There is no way they were free from sexual sins, because nobody really is, as we all know ourselves. Secondly, they were not really interested in upholding the law of Moses. They were out to destroy an innovative rabbi and were willing to destroy a woman in the process.
So, there Jesus sat on the ground, drawing in the sand. How was he going to tackle this situation? It is so easy to become stone throwers. Throwing stones at hypocrites is not difficult. Even though we are all guilty of hypocrisy at one point or another in our lives, we all tend to hate hypocrites, especially the hypocrites who have turned hypocrisy into a virtue, an instrument of survival and power. Such hypocrites are hated especially if they are politicians. So we expose them and throw stones at them. We analyze the situation and harshly judge and denounce these ugly bastards who lord it over us and ruin the world in the process.
But not Jesus: he sits on the ground and draws in the sand. Not only does he need to think hard about how to avoid the trap that has been set up for him, but there is a victim (portrayed as an adulterous sinner) who is damaged in the process of the attack launched against him. Stone throwing on his part would be a good option: just expose the hypocrisy and walk away from the situation altogether. He could then be neither accused of rigidly applying the law nor of breaking it. Exposing the hypocrisy would have been enough. But Jesus simply invites the one who is without sin to throw the first stone.
There she stands and there he sits. Is this a court: a sitting judge and a standing convict? But something unexpected happens that eclipses the remarkable invitation that Jesus issued just minutes ago to the accusers who have now left one by one. Jesus gets up and asks: “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” When the woman responds in the affirmative, Jesus responds: “Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Something very ambiguous happens here. Traditionally we tend to read the words of Jesus as meaning that he, the Lord, has every reason to condemn and throw that stone, but that he in his majestic lordship refrains from doing so. But that is not what Jesus says. he says: “No one? … Then I won’t either.” Jesus does not remain seated, but stands up, as an equal to the woman. Jesus declares himself in solidarity with those who are not able to throw the first stone. The only condition Jesus had set up to throw that stone was sinlessness. Jesus seems to suggest that he too does not have that right.
I am not suggesting that Jesus was sinful, but that Jesus intentionally suggests that he is in solidarity with sinners who cannot throw stones, because they’d have to throw stones first at themselves. Jesus is in solidarity with both the hypocrites and with the woman. He stands over against the woman as a brother over against a sister. They stand together; one admonishes the other: Go and sin no more!
What does this tell us about Jesus identity, or—to make it theological—what does it mean christologically? Rather than portraying Jesus as the sinless Lord who forgives, John shows us a Jesus who declares himself one with the sinners, unable to throw stones. Jesus is the brother among sinful sisters and brothers. He stands over against us, without any pretense, one of us, under the law, understanding us, forgiving us as one brother forgives another.
There we stand, adulterous men and women, hypocritical pharisees and politicians, we in the 21st century, all of us sinners through and through. And Jesus stands among us. Because of him, we forgive instead of throwing stones.