A sermon based on John 7:53-8:11, traditionally known as Jesus and the Woman Caught in Adultery
So, two quick things before we hear this morning’s scripture.
Number 1. If you read this story in your Bibles, it’s probably italicized, and has a disclaimer saying that this story isn’t found in the earliest manuscripts. I did a bit of research on where this story came from, and why it’s here, and honestly, I can’t give you a great answer. Some people suggest it’s two different stories mashed into one and just stuck in here because the text flows. Other people suggest Luke wrote it and it actually belongs near the end of Luke’s gospel. Others say the story floated around independently for hundreds of years. I can’t give you a great answer.
But what I can do is give a great question: As we we listen to the story, and as I preach, in the back of your mind, wonder… Why was this story left out of the earliest manuscripts? And why did it eventually get inserted into the gospel of John. Why do you think it was left out, and why do you think it was added?
Number 2. My sermon today might be a tad unsettling. For all of us. I’m going to say some things that I think the text could be saying to us, some hard things to hear, so I wanted to let you know that my usual disclaimer is in place: You are all free to agree or disagree with me, if you want to continue the conversation we’ll be meeting in the side room after worship, but most importantly, some of the unsettling things I’m going to say unsettle me as well. So with whatever I say today, I’m not saying them “against” you, but rather I’m saying them “with” you. We’re all in this together.
So, you come to church on a Sunday, singing your hymns and enjoying the children’s story, and then a mob of men come through the front doors and down the middle aisle, bringing forward a woman. And they are debating whether or not they should throw stones at her for committing adultery.
That’s a pretty dark scene, isn’t it?
What would you do? What would we do?
Well, there are obviously many different ways one could respond. But let’s start today by asking a question:
Where is the man?
Like, one does not commit adultery by themselves. So, where is the man?
Was he at home? Taking a nap? Maybe he was visiting his parents in the nursing home?
Why does he seem to bear none of the consequences for adultery, while she faces death? He’s supposed to, as Leviticus 20:10 says that they’re both supposed to die.
“If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife—with the wife of his neighbor—both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death.”
So where is he?
It’s probably worth noticing that the Pharisees and teachers of the law were all men too.
We can name it for what it is: Patriarchy.
Patriarchy is a system of society or government or religion in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it.
The men make the laws, the men carry out the laws, the men decide who lives and who dies, and conveniently, the man who committed adultery is nowhere in the picture.
One of the ways to understand this story is that it is Jesus confronting patriarchy, of giving this woman, and all women, the dignity and worth and safety that they deserve.
To borrow a popular phrase, we can say that Jesus is smashing the patriarchy.
When I was on Sabbatical, Ash and I went to a conference in Chicago called “Why Christian”, where they featured voices of people who have historically been left out, sidelined, or oppressed by Christianity. So the speakers were all either women, people of colour, or sexual minorities. When the list of speakers was published, and it was all women, people would ask the organizers… “I only see women speaking. Is this a women’s conference?” Their response? “If there were only men speaking, does that mean it’s automatically a men’s conference?”
Of the 1000 of us who attended, I’d venture to say that 80% of the attendees were women. And during one of the breaks, I went to use the washroom. And, as I got near the door, there was a grandma standing in front of the men’s room, and she said to me “I’m sorry, you can’t go in there. We’ve taken over.” To which I responded: “You know, I’m all up for smashing the patriarchy with you, but I really need to go to the bathroom.” She said, “No. I’m sorry. You gotta go somewhere else!”
Smashing the patriarchy is great in theory and all, but there are some real consequences, people. What about us men? <smile> (I don’t think I’m getting much sympathy from at least half of you right now).
In fall, I was talking to someone who was thinking about coming to our church. We were in the basement, and one of the question she asked was, “Can women be leaders here?” To which I replied, “Of course they can! God calls forth both women and men to lead equally!” And then her eyes drifted to the pictures of all the previous pastors put up on the wall. “Oh shoot,” I thought. “We have only hired men as pastors.”
That was a really uncomfortable conversation for me, people. I quickly chimed in: “Despite our long history of hiring men as pastors, we really are cool with women pastors. Like, really.”
Now, I actually think we do a pretty decent job here at Grace trying to get a gender balance in most of the thing we do… We are intentional about asking women to lead in a variety of ways. But we haven’t hired any women pastors.
I wonder why. Maybe none applied? But then I wonder, why have no women applied?
And, to reiterate, I’m with you on this one. This isn’t a shot at anyone. I actually think we’ve hired good people over the years. I’m grateful you hired me. And when Mel was hired all those years ago I was a regular church member sitting in the back, and I don’t remember wondering about our history of hiring male pastors. (Although, for the record, I am really glad we hired him…).
But the next time we hire a pastor, we need to intentionally sit with the question of why a church that affirms women as leaders, has yet to hire a female pastor.
Smashing the patriarchy can be… unsettling. But I am quite sure it’s worth the discomfort.
Speaking of smashing things, do you know that you can follow the Bible and stone someone? Like, you actually can. The religious leaders were holding rocks in one hand and their Holy Scriptures in other.
You can follow the Bible and stone someone.
But can you stone someone while following Jesus?
Why would we want to stone someone in the first place?
I’m going to go somewhere here now, as gently as possible. But I think this text speaks volumes to us as to why we’d want to stone someone in the first place.
Last month, I was talking to a friend… And she asked me question: “Kyle, why is someone’s sexual orientation such a big deal some churches? I don’t get it.”
Okay. I’m going to tell you what I told her, but I do so hesitantly for a few reasons. Here are my disclaimers.
- If you identify as LGBTQ+, or have friends or family who do, you are beloved, and you bear God’s image as much as anybody else. You always have and you always will.
- We at Grace have asked ourselves, “Regardless of someone’s age, race, culture, gender, marital status, sexual orientation, wealth, education, religious background, disabilities, or different abilities, is our church a place where they can explore and grow in faith in Jesus Christ? Our hope is yes. We can totally talk about whether or not we are succeeding at this or failing at this, but this is what we’re aiming for.
- And I am really hesitant to even compare the woman caught in adultery with sexual orientation because I consider one’s orientation similar to whether or not someone is left-handed… I actually leave the “sin” part of the conversation right out. We’re not comparing apples to apples here.
- Also, the woman caught in adultery faced being stoned, and I am aware that violence against sexual minorities is still a very real threat. So I am treading lightly.
So those are my disclaimers. But I think we can move forward from here.
I told my friend, “I think it’s a big deal to some for many reasons, but I think here are two big ones.”
- First deep within our DNA as churches, especially Mennonite churches, and as Christians, is the idea of purity. Not, like sexual purity, but that the point of faith is to “sin less.” Purity is the underlying value. And, we come by it honestly. Deep in the history of Christianity we find leaders emphasizing Ephesians 5:27 –… “[the church should] be radiant, without stain or wrinkle or any other blemish, but holy and blameless.” Sin less. Don’t sin. This partly explains the long history of Mennonite revivals, and thus churches splitting. Flee from sin at all costs.
- Secondly, as we are seeking to not sin, we have to define sin. And the easiest way for us to define sin is to name something that’s really obvious, and open, and a sin we are most likely not to commit. So, sexual orientation, and actually most “sexual sins” becomes an easy target in churches because many of us aren’t likely to sin that way. Or at least, we can keep it a secret (until there’s a baby, or we’re caught in the arms of another lover). It is easier to highlight and name and blame people who are “sinning” in ways that we are not likely to sin. That way we will not be called hypocrites. And it’s easy to be pure, it’s easy to be a church without spot and wrinkle, it’s easy to be in a church that doesn’t sin when we banish sin from our midst. We blame it, shame it, exclude it, we excommunicate it, we shun in, we stone it, and it feels good, because we are doing what God wants us to do.
But, for other sins that might hit a bit closer to home? Oh, we are way more cautious. When it comes to our wealth, and how we spend our money, and the luxury cars we buy, and the renovations we do on our houses… Oh, well, that conversation needs nuance. Because we can’t stone everyone who buys a new luxury car with bells and whistles that we probably don’t need, can we?
Or.. take hospitality. We read in Genesis 19 that God destroyed the entire towns of Sodom and Gomorrah, and then in Ezekiel 16:49-50 we explicitly read that it was because they weren’t hospitable to foreigners.
“Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. They were haughty and did detestable things before me. Therefore I did away with them as you have seen.”
Using my Bible, and some “interesting” biblical interpretation skills, I really could make the case that God’s going to destroy any church that doesn’t sponsor refugees. Like, wipe them off the face of the earth like Sodom and Gomorrah for not practicing hospitality.
Or, if I wanted to be a little gentler, I could simply make the case that they are sinning, and we are not. That we are following God’s law better than they are. And that kind of feels good, doesn’t it.
If we frame our entire understanding of faith as “sin less”, we inevitably find a “sinful” target to blame, shame, exclude, excommunicate, to shun, or to stone.
And, if those targets end up being people with less social capital, less resources, less power, we will end up with blood on our hands. Holocausts and lynchings and refugees crossing fields in winter and sexual minorities and women caught in adultery.
And we can do it all with a stone in one hand and a Bible in the other.
So, here’s an unsettling question for us all today, including me, because I especially love throwing stones at people who throw stones (so… maybe I should just skip a few steps and throw the stones at myself?).
Whom do we want to throw stones at?
Here’s the good news.
Jesus doesn’t throw stones.
He forgave the woman, invited her to make better life choices, and then let her leave in peace.
And… Lent starts on Wednesday, and as we start looking ahead to Good Friday, we find that Jesus is the victim of mob violence. “Crucify him! Crucify him!” the crowds yelled. The chief priest actually says in John : “It is better for one man to die for the people than that the whole nation perish!” (John 11:50).
By Jesus becoming the target, he reveals the entire system for what it is. Violent. Evil. And unnecessary. And he then he actually goes one step further and offers forgiveness to the very people who are killing him.
Jesus doesn’t throw stones.
And the closer we are to Jesus, the less we want to throw stones at each other. – Shane Claiborne.
That is good news indeed.