First United Methodist Church – Omaha
Dr. Jane Florence
March 4, 2018 – Third Sunday of Lent
Scripture: John 8: 2-11
Sermon: “It’s Not About Sex”
Loud voices startled her as men burst into the house bringing confusion. Rough hands reached down and grabbed her from the straw sleeping mat pulling her up in dazed horror. Their jeering laughs and brown toothed grins mocked her. She tried to scream, but their hands closed over her mouth and nose. Her eyes grew wide. What were they going to do to her? Her mind raced to the worse. They began dragging her out the door into the street. She didn’t even have a chance to cover herself properly. Her bare skin shivered beneath her thin night cloth. In the early morning light, she could see her attackers a little better. They wore the robes of the temple leaders; the embroidered garments of scribes and Pharisees were unmistakable!
What did these important men want with her? Where were they taking her? Why had they snatched her from slumber? The men on either side of her moved at a fast pace bruising her arms as they tugged her along the cobbled street. Occasionally, her feet stumbled, bloodying her knees; they jerked her back up each time she fell. They turned the corner onto the town center. They were headed to the Temple? Pushing her past the woman’s court, she entered the very heart of the temple teaching area for the first time in her life. There she stood on sacred ground of their faith not permitted to her gender. Her thin garment exposed more than her face to public view and shame. These men thrust her to the center before a group of men and the rabbi. Her eyes remained downward avoiding the gaze of disgrace. She heard the Pharisees speak to the Teacher, “we caught her in the very act of adultery, our laws say she shall be stoned. Shall we stone her?” Only death could end her humiliation. If let to live, what kind of life was left for her now? Let the stones fly and end the nightmare quickly, she thought. All eyes bore into her soul until the teacher moved.
Jesus bent down and swirled the dirt on the floor with his finger. The men forgot her for a moment. They moved past her to see what he wrote. Her accusers peppered him with questions. He became the focus of their mocking inquiries. She breathed for the first time. All eyes were on him- releasing her from the torment of their inspection. They battered him with words almost forgetting she was even there. Their voices grew louder with each question; their frustration grew at his silence. He refused to engage their demands. Finally, he straightened up to look them in the eye. In a calm voice he responded to their anxious questioning. Not with angry words of his own or a strong defense, he said simply, “You who are perfect, without sin, go ahead and throw your stone at her.” But before any of them shifted their gaze to her, he bent down to swirl the dirt again. Their eyes followed his movement. This time he was not assaulted with a barrage of questions. It was their time to fall silent.
For the first time, this woman saw the stones that some of the men were clutching in fearful fists- the ones they had carried with them into God’s house of prayer. The old man paused; his eyes clouded his withered face as shameful remembrances of his own pasts crossed his faces. “You who are without sin…” The words hung in the air. The man looked to the sinful stone in his hand. Without looking at her again, he retreated out the temple door. Then the others, one by one, pondered their lives their actions, and exited without a word or a sideways glance at her. With the crowd dispersed, her attackers gone, Jesus was left alone with her. Finally, he stood up again looking only into her eyes, “Woman, where are your accusers? Has no one condemned you after all?” She looked into his face. “No one, sir” she said. Nodding and with a smile, he said, “then neither do I condemn you. Go your way – live whole.”
The story is usually titled “The Woman caught in adultery.” It says “the very act of adultery” to be precise. That’s a juicy title to garner attention. So some may expect a sermon on marriage fidelity and the sin of adultery. Some preachers will just use it as a springboard to elaborate on the overall wickedness of women. So, it may be disappointing to hear that this text is not about adultery. It’s not about this woman caught in the very act. She is not the sinner here.
The Pharisees say their law required that she be stoned to death, but the law actually says that in the case of adultery, both the man and woman must be put to death (Lev. 20:10, Deut. 22:22). But the scribes and Pharisees make it only about the woman. Why was reference to the adulterer omitted? Who was she with? It takes two to commit this crime. Both should have been brought forth with witnesses to a trail.
If you are in to conspiracy theories, which you really should be in this case, how did the religious leaders just happen to burst into that place at that very time? It was not practice for the Pharisees to do bedroom checks at random early in the morning. How would they catch her “in the very act”- unless maybe, one of their own has set up this woman to trap her?
They brought no witnesses, as required by law. Was she just a woman that no one would step up to defend, that no one would care or notice if she were stoned to death? Was she an orphan with no brother or father to look out for her? Was she a widow or a divorced woman, so that a technical aspect of the law might call her behavior a crime, but no harm, no foul truly occurred. That is if there even was someone else in that room that morning. Perhaps the whole thing was a fabrication.
The story is not about adultery. It’s about these religious leaders trying to rid themselves of Jesus and willing to go to any length and use anyone: the sick, the poor, the vulnerable as objects to defeat their enemy. Why are they so intent on removing Jesus?
If we read just before this sexy story, we hear that Jesus’ teaching is different than traditional ways. The Pharisees were looking to uphold the letter of the Law of Moses, but their hearts were closed as the stones in their hands. Jesus has compassion for the people; the crowds find freedom and liberation and hope in his words. In short, the people like Jesus’s teachings more than the priests as he reinterprets their faith shining light of compassion and love into a place of harsh judgment and hypocrisy. Jesus has been stirring up people with teaching love. Just before this scene, the crowd is wow-ed. But not everyone embraces his new message. Some are claiming Jesus must be prophet or Messiah! Others are saying ‘that can’t be.’ The verse reads, “there was division in the crowd because of him.”
People in charge don’t like division or conflict. The priests sent the temple police into the crowd to take Jesus out. “Then the temple police went back to the chief priests [without Jesus in handcuffs] Pharisees, asked them, ‘Why did you not arrest him?’ The police answered, ‘Never has anyone spoken like this!’ Then the Pharisees replied, ‘Surely you have not been deceived too, have you?’ Then Nicodemus, who was a religious leader too, asked, ‘Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?’”
Jesus has already addressed the real problem here. He told the crowds early on in his teaching, he said quite clearly, “do not judge.” He didn’t wrap that in a complicated parable or metaphor. No one has to struggle to figure out what he’s trying to say. He said “Do not judge. As you judge others, you shall be judged.” The story is not about adultery. It is about judging and using people. The religious leaders struggled to hear that. We struggle the same.
We jump to judgment. We size each other up. We label people like us or not.
We judge each other so quickly because of our own insecurities. We have an instinct telling us the fittest survive, so we must be better than or at least find someone who is less than. Every time we jump to judge another, we are showing our insecurity about who we are. We judge each other, size each other up, put each other in a box labeling the box this or that, for or against, like or not like. Then we know the ones we don’t like. We judge them by the label we put on them.
Jesus doesn’t live in a dualist, insecure world where ego judges. He doesn’t argue law of adultery or get into the nuances of the case. He refuses to engage in the distraction and cuts to the core by inviting them to remember who they are and to remember their humanity. Are any of you perfect? Let the one who has never made a mistake judge another. Jesus refuses to allow this woman to be used as an object, refuses to have her used against him, refuses to have her used as a pawn in a political game of partisanship.
Who is used in today’s game of political partisanship? Who is used in the leader’s game of gotcha? The undocumented migrants who arrived in the US as children who have lived their whole lives as Americans are now political pawns as leaders use them to fortify their own agendas and power bases. The same with the immigrants and refugees who are tossed back and forth across boarders at the will and whim of securing political base of support. The same with health care and gun laws. People in power are willing to let others die, to sacrifice people in order to ease their fears of loss of power. We do it as a nation, and it’s easy to point our fingers at political leaders and news media saying ‘shame on you’.
Jesus held up a mirror to the religious leaders, so we must look into it also.
We judge and use people in our offices and workplaces. We do it in our families pitting children against a spouse or parent against parent. We do it with neighbors and friends and with people we just meet and those we haven’t even met. When we fear we will lose, when we fear we aren’t right, when we forget who we are: beloved, imperfect, sacred and scared, we judge.
So Jesus gathered his followers around a table of remembrance. He looked at their brokenness and their fears, and in love for them, he took the bread from the table, gave thanks, broke it and said, “eat this together, and remember… Neither do I condemn you.” He took the cup, gave thanks, shared it with them saying, “drink of the same cup together, do not judge, but remember the new covenant of God’s love for all, remember… Neither do I condemn you.”