Sermon - 7th August 2011
Seeing Salvation: 8
The Woman Taken in Adultery - by He Qi
Scripture - John 8:2-11
Rev Andy Braunston
When have we felt ashamed? It’s not an emotion we think about much these days. Other cultures have a much more developed sense of shame than we do in the West but we can, and do, feel this emotion sometimes. We may feel shame when we’ve done something stupid, something out of character and something we regret. We may feel shame when we don’t need to but feel it because of inappropriate feelings of guilt. We may feel shame because of how others view and treat us, or when we don’t fit into the norm that we feel we should fit in with.
Imagine what the woman in today’s Gospel story must have felt. The Gospel writer notes that she was taken “in the very act of adultery” and marched up to Jesus. There is no dignity here, no time to explain, no way to put her actions in some sort of context. I’m reminded of a friend of mine who was discovered with her lover in Uganda and they were both marched, naked, through the streets to a police station by her family.
Sometimes, in court I see people who are ashamed of what they’ve done. This is not the artificial shame that is sometimes shown in the hope of impressing the bench but more the sense of “what a fool I’ve been” that happens when the enormity of what someone’s done is brought home to them. They may have been very stupid when drunk and now in the cold sober light of day they feel ashamed. They may have not realised the effect of their actions on others and now the consequences of their actions are spelt out to them. A person may have never been in court before and the whole process makes them feel ashamed.
Shame is an emotion we all have, sometimes it’s good that we have it. It helps us take stock of our lives. Sometimes we feel shame because others want us to and use that emotion to control us and the world around us. What we see in the Gospel story is, I think, the latter situation – a group of men are manipulating a woman in order to trick Jesus and to uphold a vile system of double standards. The ones who should feel ashamed are the ones who shout the loudest in this story.
The story we heard is taken from St John’s gospel but it’s not a good fit with that Gospel. It reads more like a story from Matthew, Mark or Luke. It uses the phrase “the scribes and the Pharisees” which isn’t used anywhere else in John’s Gospel, it is slotted into to a passage about Jesus being the light of the world and the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament have it put in various other places. The last phrase “go and sin no more” is not in the oldest manuscripts. This is a story, then, which the earliest Christians were not that comfortable with. It was clearly a well-known story which was told and retold but those who edited the Gospels really struggled with it, not knowing where to put it and not quite knowing how to end it.
This isn’t to say that it’s not an authentic story of Jesus, quite the reverse, their sense of discomfort means that it’s very authentic as Jesus always disturbs and unsettles our certainties.
The Art and Artist
Why do you think there was a problem with the story? Look at how the artist has portrayed the story in his art. What do you notice about the picture/ [draw out the rather explicit portrayal of the woman, it’s sexual. Story is uncomfortable as Jesus doesn’t condemn or comment on the woman’s behaviour]
Chinese art is made up, traditionally, of bold brush strokes reminiscent of calligraphy. The artist here uses those bold brush strokes – you can see strong borders to his figures – together with bold colours more reminiscent of western art. The artist, Dr He Qi (Hoo Chi) was among the many people sent to the countryside during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. As a young man, he escaped hard labour by painting pictures of Chairman Mao Zedong. During those years, he found a copy of Renaissance artist Raphael's Madonna and Child in a magazine, and was so moved by it, that he began to paint copies of it at night. Later, He Qi earned a doctorate in religious art from Nanjing Art Institute, having studied medieval art in Hamburg. He was a professor of Christian Art at Nanjing Theological Seminary before moving to America in 2004.
In the text we read that the poor woman was taken “in the very act of adultery”. We don’t know quite what made her actions adulterous. She could have been betrothed and with someone else, she could have been married and with another guy, the man himself could have been married. Maybe, like the woman at the well, she was separated from her husband with now with someone else. But what strikes me is that she was taken “in the very act” but the man wasn’t. Why not? Was he allowed to run off? Was he too important to take? The Law prescribed death for both parties in adultery, not just the woman, but it’s the woman who’s been brought before Jesus. So there is a dreadful double standard going on here – people are shouting for her to be stoned but they weren’t bothered about the man.
And then there is the double standard in that the Scribes and Pharisees didn’t really care about the woman’s so-called crime. They were using the incident to trick Jesus – another feature of the stories in Matthew, Mark and Luke rather than John. The trap was really quite clever. Jesus was noted as a compassionate preacher, he really wasn’t going to agree to the woman being stoned. If he did he’d be acting out of character and people would, rightly, stop listening to him. Yet if he said that she shouldn’t be stoned he would be speaking against the Law of Moses. If he said she should be stoned according to the Law he would have put himself in opposition to the Romans who reserved capital punishment to themselves.
Changing the Rules
Jesus doesn’t play the game that the Scribes and Pharisees have chosen. He avoids it by saying nothing, crouching down and doodling in the dust. He doesn’t dignify their sexist, bigoted ways with a response. Instead he squats in the dust. This doesn’t please the crowd – I find that whenever we change the rules of unfair games the game masters are never pleased – so Jesus is pressed for an answer. Eventually he looks up and says “let he who is without sin cast the first stone” looks down again and continues to doodle in the dust.
The Gospel writer notes that it’s the older men who go first. The older we get the more aware, hopefully, we become of ourselves and our own weaknesses, contradictions and foibles.
Jesus’ silence and few words expose the double standards of the men and, one by one they leave.
I Do Not Condemn You
The oldest manuscripts have Jesus stopping at the words “I do not condemn you” and not the extra words “go and sin no more”. Interestingly in all but one of the commentaries I read when researching the sermon the commentators put great play on the importance that Jesus told the woman not to sin again. It’s as if they were afraid that Jesus might have condoned or not been bothered by her behaviour. Yet the earliest manuscripts don’t have those words – maybe that’s why the earliest scribes in the New Testament had a problem with this story – it makes Jesus out to be a bit too liberal. One commentator thought that the passage only got included in the Gospel after the church came to terms with having to forgive people who committed adultery.
We still live in an age where many religious people are very concerned with sexual behaviour. Within Christianity the debates about homosexuality continue to rage. In recent discussions with Churches Together in England we were told that they “don’t want sexuality to enter the ecumenical space” in response to enquiries about whether or not we’d be welcome to apply to join. What surprises me is that they seem to think that sexuality isn’t already there! It also annoys me that they reduce MCC to sex. We are about more than a commitment to the inclusion of lgbt people in the life of God’s people.
As the arguments rage, Jesus continues to sit in the dust, saying nothing but offering acceptance and changing the rules of the game. We wait for the crowd of people who shout and scream to drift away one by one, but we know that Jesus doesn’t condemn us just as he didn’t condemn that poor nameless woman, forever defined as the “woman taken in adultery” so long ago.
Link to image of painting here.