This Bible story really ticked-off somebody and we almost lost it
Throughout the year, the Southern New England Conference of the United Church of Christ reproduces the Daily Lectionary for use by churches. These are the suggested readings for March 8th: Psalm 128; Ezekiel 36:22-32; and John 7:53—8:11. I would encourage you to read these short selections as part of your Lenten practice.
Today’s Gospel passage is chockfull of interesting lessons. First of all, if you would, please go to your Bible and see if the passage is printed within double brackets ([[ ]]). This signifies that the editors of the edition you are reading have judged this to be a suspect text. This in no way implies it is not inspired. It means that its provenance is uncertain because the ancient manuscripts are not consistent as to the particular passage.
As a matter of fact, the double brackets, I think, testify to the absolute inspiration and value of this passage. In my mind’s eye, I see it like this. John’s Gospel is a late New Testament writing. It is probably a good decade or more later than Matthew and especially Luke. John gives evidence of an awareness of Matthew’s Gospel. The earlier Gospels may be circulating among Christian communities. But let’s focus on Luke because scholars posit that this double bracketed passage may actually have begun life between Luke 21:38 and 22:1. There, the double bracketed story fits more neatly into the flow and context of the narrative.
But it’s not there. For some reason it may have been stricken from Luke’s Gospel. Maybe a pious scribe was offended by this generous treatment of the woman. Again, in my mind’s eye, I see the editor of John’s Gospel discovering this authentic piece of scriptural tradition that was then free floating among the earliest believers. Aware of the passage of time, and aware that the eyewitnesses are passing from this life and with them the age of the Gospels, this editor inserts this piece of Scripture into John’s late writing. It may not belong exactly here, and thus the double brackets of inconsistent manuscript references, but it is so thoroughly accepted as part of the inspired tradition that it was inserted into this late Gospel so that it would not be lost to future Christian generations. This is how important and sacred this pericope was judged.
We are living through a time of a very vocal moral self-righteousness. A lot of politicians in our country are calling for “traditional values” to be legislated and for anything else to be criminalized. I always question the value of a morality that feels it must be forced upon people rather than embraced by them. The citizens of Iran, as an example for us, are protesting in their nation under very harsh persecution, and are calling for the end of their stifling theocracy. Do those dour and unsmiling old men who rule over there really believe that they are helping their faith by unleashing morality police who have killed people not sufficiently devoted to their most strict religious traditions? Do we here believe that our leaders will be any better able to legislate and enforce some sort of long-gone moral strictures? Violence is the last resort of a dying idea that has lost appeal and merit.
We should not cede the mantle of moral authority to those who most vocally invoke God in their diatribes – and today’s Gospel shows us why. Self-righteous authorities drag a terrified woman before Jesus as a prop. They do not care about the Law. They care about their power to use the Law. Leviticus 20:10 is quite clear. If a couple is caught in the act of adultery, as the morality police admit in today’s Gospel, then both are to be punished. Where is the man in this story? Was he allowed to get dressed and sneak away quietly by these men so concerned about the letter of the Law? I remember the opening scene of Spotlight as a pedophile priest was quietly escorted out of a police station. That was one of the most powerfully disturbing scenes in the movie.
When the religious authorities drag this woman to Jesus, they’re looking for spectacle not justice. Jesus recognizes immediately their hypocrisy. Does Jesus trace in the dust the words of Leviticus 20:10? Does Jesus maybe begin to write the name of the powerful and connected man whom these pious and offended authorities let escape from justice? Jesus calls out the hypocrisy of these morality enforcers.
This was maybe a lesson too close to home for some religious editor of Luke’s Gospel who did not want to share the story of Jesus standing up for a woman caught in adultery. The editor’s sensibilities were offended by this Jesus. But the story would not die, it would not pass into silence. Believers believed in this Jesus who calls out the powerful who use religion. And thank God some other editor forced it in somewhere in the late Gospel of John so that this Jesus would not be lost to us.
Morality is not owned by the ones who yell and perform their religion, and we should not allow such insincerity to become the definition of religion. We follow the Jesus who saw in that woman a person, a child of God, not a prop, not a campaign placard. She stands for all those who are attacked by today’s morality police. We need to remember during Lent that we follow a crucified criminal, one who was charged with a capital crime for challenging the authorities that be. During Lent let us concentrate on the Jesus who loved the person not the rule so that we do not settle for His caricature forced upon us by those who are so distrustful of what they believe that they insist on forcing it upon others by the power of the state.
If you’d like, here is the link to the Southern New England Conference’s daily reading schedule: www.sneucc.org/lectionary.
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