Thursday, May 16, 2013

Everyone Has a Past, But More Importanly, Everyone Has a Future

I was thinking recently about the story in John 8 about the woman caught in adultery.

 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them.  3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them,  4 they said to him, "Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery.  5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?"  6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground.  7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, "Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her."  8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground.  9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.  10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, "Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?"  11 She said, "No one, sir." And Jesus said, "Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again."  --John 8:2-11  

This is a well-known story in the New Testament.  Many people love it because it exemplifies Jesus' grace, shows us that nobody is without sin, and makes us wonder what Jesus is writing in the sand.  

In the Bible, adultery is sex between a man and a married woman--this is different from our definition of adultery today.  Today, we just think of it as sex with someone who is not the person's spouse.  But in the Bible, since multiple wives and concubines were normal for men to have, it's not adultery for a married man to sleep with someone who wasn't his wife (unless she was someone else's wife; then it would be adultery).  The concept of biblical adultery all depends on the woman's marital status.  There are a couple of different penalties for adultery:  a woman who is betrothed and commits adultery the penalty is stoning, and the same goes for the man (Deuteronomy 22:23-24).  A woman who is married and commits adultery would face the penalty of strangulation (this is according to the Mishnah; it is not in the Bible itself.  For further info, please see this article).

Women were essentially property.  When we see the commandment to not commit adultery, we also see in the commandment about coveting that it is forbidden to covet the neighbor's wife.  Coveting the neighbor's sister isn't prohibited.  Coveting the neighbor's daughter isn't prohibited.  Coveting the neighbor's wife is.  (See Exodus 20:14, 17).  

Now that we see those penalties, we now more about the story in John.  This woman was going to be stoned, so therefore, she must have been betrothed to a man, but not yet married to him.  So why was she in this situation?  Was she going to be one of a number of wives to some man who saw it only as a business deal?  Who was the man with whom she was caught?  Was it some kind of set-up?  There are so many unanswered questions.  

I wonder, also, if Jesus' hesitation to condemn this engaged woman had to do with another woman he knew about, another woman who had likely been thought to have committed adultery while engaged, another woman who faced possible divorce from her husband.

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.--Matthew 1:18-19  

In condemning this woman, would Jesus have also been passing judgment on his own mother?  What did he know of the circumstances of his birth?  Had growing up with questionable origins made him more sensitive to the plight of others?  Had the rumors of his parentage been known to the people who brought him this woman?  Were they testing him, not only to see what he would do regarding punishment, but also regarding the commandment to honor his mother and father?

I also wondered, "what happened next?"  Even though Jesus refused to condemn her, and everyone else had walked away, how was she treated by them after this?  Jesus told her to go and to not sin again.  Let's assume that's what happened.  Let's assume she repented and became a new person.   Did everyone forget about it?  Or was she branded "that woman", ignored, shamed, and treated badly because of one bad decision in her life?  What happened to her husband?  Did he forgive her or did he divorce her?

Was she able to move on with her life, somehow?  Or did this incident rear its ugly head again, maybe even years later?  Was it distorted and exaggerated, made out to be more than it was?  

We just don't know.

But I think, what we can learn from this story, is that when we hear or read about someone's failure, someone's sin, is to be quiet for a time.  Jesus took his time thinking about the situation while everyone else waited to hear what he had to say.  While I think it is an example of Jesus' teaching in the sermon on the mount about not noticing the log in our own eyes when we see the speck in another's eyes (Matthew 7:3-5).   I think it's also an example to realize that in our own lives, there are people we love who may have been in the same situation that we now condemn.  Would we be willing to condemn those closest to us?  Probably not.  When it's personal, we easily come up with grace.  

Jesus loved his mom.  He wouldn't have wanted to see her condemned to death by stoning.  He knew that she went on to be married to Joseph and to raise him and his siblings.  He knew that she had a new life despite the scandal and gossip that must have come along with how he was conceived.  And, today, we think highly of her.  We read the "Magnificat" and think it is a beautiful piece of poetry.  We read where she says "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." (Luke 1:38) and wonder if our own hearts are so open to fully submit to God.

None of us today think badly of Mary, though I suspect we would've been skeptical of her claims then.  None of us today think we would have stoned the woman caught in adultery, but I bet many of us would have been in that group.  We stone people today with our words, with our actions, with how we treat them.  

Jesus looked at the woman caught in adultery as someone who had a future ahead of her, not someone who was going to be defined by her past or even her present.

Shouldn't we do the same for people?


Joy M. Newcom said...

Great perspective !

felicitydale said...

The connection between the woman caught in adultery and Mary is powerful! Thank you.

Kelly J Youngblood said...

You're welcome! It all came about because of learning the different penalties for adultery based on the woman's status of engaged or married.