Fifth Sunday of Lent. Fr David Rocks preaches on the woman taken in adultery.
‘How low can you stoop?’ In a playground context this might be a game, but in the world of the cliché it points to the righteous outrage that follows an act of depravity. We are oriented towards establishing justice, and putting things in order.
The woman in our Gospel passage has stooped to the low point of adultery. She has been caught in the act and her shame laid bare. Her actions shame her family and community, and flout what has been held dear for generations upon generations. She stands accused and makes no attempt to deny the charge or defend herself. The Law is very clear, and she knows her fate: this ‘teacher’ will surely know also. Death by stoning, for stooping so low. The men will be respected for ensuring that the Law is followed and society protected, and she will be no more. It couldn’t be much clearer.
However, have the men created something of a legal nightmare? In Leviticus 20:10 we read, ‘the man that commits adultery with another man’s wife, even he that commits adultery with his neighbour’s wife, the adulterer and the adulteress shall surely be put to death.’ So where is this woman’s accomplice? Why the enthusiasm of these men to condemn only the woman? Why do this with such urgency, while the Lord is teaching his followers? Is justice for the woman in fact what the accusing men are seeking to achieve?
It would seem that the principal intention of these scribes and Pharisees is to place the Lord in a legal and moral conundrum. Should he say that the woman should not be condemned, they will be able to accuse him of opposition to the Law of God, and therefore seriously undermine his influence over his followers. Should he uphold the Law, then his message of mercy is shown to be shallow and without substance, likewise assaulting his outreach. These men have stooped very low: harnessing the situation of the sin of the adulterers and provoking a public scandal while not seeming to follow anything like a ‘due process’. Their intent to devastate the ministry of the Lord has become so preoccupying that they have ceased to view the Law as a living and life-giving gift of God to his chosen people. They have indeed stooped low.
Then the Lord stoops down low, but in a very different way. He stoops down while the entire debacle plays out and begins to write or draw on the ground with his finger. What does he write? We have no indication from the text. Writing establishes words and traditions much more than the spoken word – the words last longer. In stooping so low as to deal with the adulterers in such a confused manner, the men had neglected to write anything down, explore the details or the specifics, and yet they have ‘passed sentence’ based on their knowledge of what is written. In reality, they are pursuing an unwritten objective with regard to the Lord’s mission. Whatever it is that the Lord is writing, he is doing so with his finger, establishing something, laying it bare. As the Law of God was inscribed on the stone tablets, so the Lord inscribes a ‘new deed’ (Isaiah 43), and establishes his law of mercy.
Our entire belief pivots on the joyful message that God stoops down low. He stoops so low as to take on our debased nature and redeem it. He stoops into suffering and death, being brought low because of our sins. Despite the grace of our baptism, we stoop low in sinful ways. Perhaps we are quick to debase others, pass judgement, hold grudges, exact revenge. Perhaps we attract the scorn of others for our mistakes, or are exacting when it comes to sharing mercy. But we can always rejoice in the knowledge that, however low we stoop, that’s how low our merciful Saviour will go to write his law of mercy in the gravelly recesses of our hearts.
Image: detail from Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery by Peter Paul Rubens