John 7:53- 8:11- ...while Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.[a] 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” 11 She said, “No one, sir.”[b] And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”]][c]
The passage John 7:53- 8:11 talks of a woman who is wrongfully confined and held by a group of people, who want Jesus to answer what punishment she should get for the indictment they have given her.
We see Jesus being questioned by the scribes and Pharisees. The bait they use here is a woman who they say has been caught in adultery. The people present along with the scribes and Pharisees therefore want Jesus to say that the woman has committed a mistake and should be stoned in accordance with the law of Moses. But does this happen or does Jesus do something not expected? The said passage fascinated me because it was included in the gospel of John very late. So much that biblical researchers would even say that it is not Johanine in style. This itself makes it interesting to look at because it could have been a resistance or protest passage within the entire scheme of events. Almost like being pushed through in the heaviness of the gospel. This therefore gives an indication that it may also contain something equally explosive which could have been of concern to the church. When we look at the passage we notice several things.
There are several gaps in the story which actually may be intentional. Where is the man caught in adultery along with the woman, why did the crowd wait for Jesus to come, was their concern adultery or trapping Jesus? Three major characterisations exist in the story. From the perspective of the men, the woman and Jesus are the enemies. More Jesus and less the woman. They are therefore to be done away with. The woman is slapped with an allegation of adultery. This is made as an excuse to engage Jesus. This is for defeating him and getting him out of the equation. So there is a reason for them to do what they did. A reason from their perspective. They used a law and twisted it in their favour to do away with the threat of Jesus. The situation could even have turned out into an early end of Jesus’ public ministry. The atmosphere is volatile and could have had a very ugly end. But what happens is completely different from what they had planned.
The second perspective is that of the woman who is accused of adultery. This is a woman who is wrongfully held against her will. She is a woman who is maybe caught in the crossfire. But it also shows as to how the men treat her as an object to lure Jesus. She is helpless in the entire incident and awaits her judgement at the hand of the moralists. Her wait may have been agonisingly slow and makes one wonder whether that was worse than the accusation made against her. She is embarrassed and humiliated in the company of many males who are preaching morality to her. So much that she has lost all energy to complain and say anything at all. Her silence is not an admission of her guilt but an admission of how she has been subjected to violence, pain and humiliation. This silence speaks more than the words used by the others. Her silence is also the judgement of a society who continued to ravage her life instead of showing empathy to her and supporting her.
The third perspective is that of Jesus. He is faced with several predicaments. Should he affirm the lawless law and even the misinterpreted law, should he judge the woman or fight for her, should he support or condemn the men, should he wish away the uncomfortable situation along with the people present, or should he say what is right and save the situation without bringing about bloodshed? The tension in the passage is so strong that one cannot predict which way it will go. Blood shed seems imminent.
As mentioned before, the bible passage attains new meaning as a subversive text because it was never a part of the text and still confuses those who read it. This is because the text is packaged brilliantly that the meaning lies hidden somewhere inside.
Maaro, magar pyar se maaro, is the conceptual framework in which I would like to see this passage. People are quick to unassumingly use the thought in the passage “first one to throw a stone” and “anyone without sin” so much that it is seen as practically impossible to follow. The killer instinct of the passage has been made toothless by the fact that it has been allowed to stand still without reflection.
My conceptual framework was picked up in Mumbai from a story that a pastor shared. It is a different setting involving different characters but which nevertheless speaks to us and inspires us. The setting is a suburban railway station in Mumbai where a long queue is broken by a heavily built and tall man. The short person behind him complains and asks him to stand at his right place in the queue. Both of them get into a fight and the winner is clear because of the might at the hand of the first man. He raises his hand and says “Maroonga thuje”, meaning I will beat you/hit you. The short man is unsure as to what to say but nevertheless maintains his ground. The crowd anticipates a good fight and instead of saying anything, watches intensely for the first move from the giant. Just as the huge man raises his hand to swipe away the small man like a fly, comes a voice far off but crystal clear. It says “Maaro, bhaiya maaro….magar pyaar se maaro” meaning “beat him/hit him man, beat/hit him with love.” The crowd is unsure as to which direction to look to and pay attention. They don’t want to miss a thing. A few seconds of silence follows and then the big man, small person and the crowd burst out laughing. A fatal situation turns to a situation where everyone says, take it easy. The big man shakes the other person’s hand, says sorry and joins the queue at his rightful place. The crowd in true Mumbai Bollywood style claps.
How can we see the passage of the woman, the adulterous woman as she is called and what Jesus does? It is a common scene or setting in our lives when the power of intervention could work wonders. I would pick a few points from the passage for our reflection today.
1. Kill the bill or kill the attitude?
The women’s reservation bill was one of the promises made by the United Progressive Alliance II in its election manifesto. Despite the passing of other bills this has stayed in the back burner. The upcoming national elections in 2014 would have been a time to bring this into effect but the parliament cannot get it passed because of some men who group themselves into a mob whenever this is discussed. Killing the bill or Kill Bill, following the famous Hollywood movie seems to be the attitude of male politicians. Interestingly the movie portrays a woman killing a man. Several reasons are given for the negation of the bill and they involve reasons which are never really out in the open. It resembles the attitude of the crowd to the woman. They alleged that she had done something and therefore should be stoned or killed. A similar reasoning is used to say that the reservation bill should be killed. But Jesus in the passage turns around the argument. He writes on the ground and it looks like he is writing a new bill to be passed. The bill involves telling the mob that if anything/anyone should be stoned or killed it is their attitude and not the woman. If anything is sin, it is what they are doing. It is time that we also took stock of our lives and saw ourselves and located ourselves in the said passage. Who are we in the passage? The crowd, the woman or Jesus? Who should we be? Are we sinning?
2. The silence of the lambs.
Silence has been much written about and always is used to suggest that those who are silent are the reason for the state of affairs in our country. They include women, ordinary people and the poor. Their silence is seen as the problem instead of the solution. The woman in the text is also silent. Does that mean that she had nothing to say, was guilty as charged, accepted the sentencing of the crowd or does it mean that her silence was speaking against what she was charged for. This is the silence that Jesus notices. It is a silence of communities who are oppressed into silence. It is a silence which is even more powerful than speech. The woman is fighting her battle with silence. Even as the others shout, she remains silent. Maybe it was a silent defiance against the men who teamed up against her. It is noteworthy that the silence and not the accusation moves Jesus. It is the silence of the lambs. He moves over to the role of the shepherd who takes the side of one sheep while leaving the 99 on the other side. Even as the other sheep complain, the one is silently exploring new ground and territory. The shepherd goes in search of this one.
3. Writing and shedding one’s blood to prevent bloodshed.
Jesus is under a clear predicament. The crowd was ready to stone him using the woman as bait. They were waiting for him and finally got him. The answer to their question on the law and what should be done to the woman is interestingly given by writing on the ground. He basically puts his life on the line and is prepared to shed his blood to prevent bloodshed and to prevent injustice to the woman. At no point does this seem as something benefitting him. As theologians this gives a clear indication that we have to write and rewrite for the benefit of oppressed individuals and communities. Seeing oneself as the oppressed and writing for oneself may not come under such protest writing. Unfortunately we sometimes write for ourselves. We should be able to transcend this and write for the benefit of others and for the rightful justice of others. It is also interesting to note that Jesus prevents violence through his act of writing instead of doing vice versa. We can notice in the society that we live in that a lot of hate literature is passed on. The communal violence in Muzaffarnagar, Uttar Pradesh was fuelled by such hate literature and images being circulated over the internet and through mobile phones. Such messages divided communities and brought about conflict which became very difficult to handle. Fanning the fire and adding fuel to the fire is easier than stopping the fire. Jesus is asked to fan the fire and sign the death sentence of the woman. He puts his life at risk to do the opposite.
4. Maaro, magar pyar se maaro.
This motto sums it up. But one should not mistake what this means. It is not being a smiling assassin, or smiling while stabbing someone in the back. What it means rather, is that we should love one another first and if we still have hatred, then go on and do what you want. The first step and the first part has to be the love for the other. This is new territory, new culture, new understanding, new laws and new ways. Yet we enter into the newness with love in our minds. Jesus does not tell the group of men to not throw stones and not punish. He only says, let the one without sin throw the first stone. He does not discourage them, but tells them to do it if they have no wrong inside. In another way, he is saying, do it with love. But they are not able to because love does not involve violence and condemnation.
In our own communities this becomes a good example to follow. This is at the same time an outlet and an understanding of one’s limitations and the road that lies ahead. Jesus does not stop the scribes and Pharisees from making the accusation. Rather he allows them to make it so that the negative thoughts inside them come out. After this has happened he knows that they have it out of their minds. This is when he talks to them about sin, and then suggests that the filth is out. Now you can concentrate on something positive. This becomes an important element in our churches as well. People need an outlet to express themselves. This is important because without this expression the hatred will remain. The expression of this hatred will give an opportunity to people to be at peace with themselves and go their way. Jesus sends both parties their way. One goes with the understanding that hatred is not there anymore and they cannot sustain the relentless campaign against the woman and Jesus. The other party in the form of the woman also is send her way, with hope that Jesus does not condemn her. This is because Jesus does not have hatred for her.
Friends, in our haste in moving forward we have all become a mob, waiting to pounce on the next person who appears. Let us meditate on and allow the bible passage to speak to us, so that we realise it is time to express, time for getting an outlet but also time to let go. Amen.
(Preached this sermon in UTC Tagore Hall for Sunday evening worship on October 13, 2013.)