Q5 Jesus diffusing a stoning
A5 Consider the case of Jesus being asked to approve the stoning of a woman caught in adultery.
Jesus does not advise knocking her out first so that the stoning could (mercifully) take place without her pain and screaming.
Nor does Jesus propose that the woman is somehow innocent or that the cruelty of her husband drove her to find comfort in the arms of another man.
Nor does Jesus expose the uneven application of the law–her lover appears to have gotten off scot-free while she is forced to bear the entire weight of the law (Lev 20:10, Deut 22:22)
Finally, Jesus does not oppose the law itself as being too rigorous.
This event takes place while Jesus is busy teaching in the temple. It is entirely understandable that the elders address him as Διδάσκαλε (“teacher” or “rabbi”) since clearly he shows himself adept at helping others to interpret the Torah.
Obviously it was to find occasion against Him that they brought her; see John 8:6. They knew He was prone to forgive sinners.—καὶ στήσαντες … τί λέγεις; “And having set her in the midst,” where she could be well seen by all; a needless and shameless preliminary, “they say to Him, Teacher,” appealing to Him with an appearance of deference, “this woman here has been apprehended in adultery in the very act”. ἐπʼ αὐτοφώρῳ is the better reading. Originally meaning “caught in the act of theft” (φώρ), it came to mean generally “caught in the act,” red-hand[ed] (Expositor’s Greek Testament).
One can see here a parallel with Matt 22:17 where Jesus is asked whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar. This might suggest that “forgiveness” is not the concern here, but the issue is whether the Jews had the right to impose the death penalty when it was officially mandated, by the Romans, that no one could be executed by the Sanhedrin without a Roman hearing. The Jewish populace could be expected to demand to stone this woman as their lawful right given to them by God through Moses.
On the other hand, maybe the issue at stake is whether “stoning” is always the required punishment since the Torah itself does not indicate what form of punishment was to be used:
The punishment of adultery commanded by Moses was death, Lev 20:10; Deut 22:22. The particular manner of the death was not specified. . . . Thus the punishment for adultery varied. In some cases it was strangling. In the time of Ezekiel (Zech 16:38-40) it was stoning and being thrust through with a sword. If the adulteress was the daughter of a priest, the punishment was being burned to death (Barnes’ Notes on the Bible).
Other scholars note that the death penalty had already been substituted by other forms of milder punishment by the rabbis (Pharisees) and their synagogues:
Under the Talmudic law the severity of the Mosaic code was in many instances modified, and the laws relating to Adultery came under the influence of a milder theory. . . . Upon this mild view followed the entire abolition of the death penalty, in the year 40, before the destruction of the Second Temple (Sanh. 41a), when the Jewish courts, probably under pressure of the Roman authorities, relinquished their right to inflict capital punishment. Thereafter, the adulterer was scourged, and the husband of the adulteress was not allowed to condone her crime (Soṭah, vi. 1), but was compelled to divorce her, and she lost all her property rights under her marriage contract (Maimonides, “Yad ha-Ḥazaḳah, Ishut,” xxiv. 6); nor was the adulteress permitted to marry her paramour (Soṭah, v. 1) (source).
If this is the case, then it is possible that the “scribes and Pharisees” held conflicting views. The scribes would have required stoning while the Pharisees would have required that she be divorced and her property rights abolished.
It is difficult for me to imagine that either of the two discussions above were being played out here. If they were, then one would suppose that the question brought to Jesus would have needed to reflect their true concerns: “The law of Moses, does it give us (the Sanhedrin) the right to impose the death penalty, or must we submit all capital crimes to Roman jurisdiction?” or “The law of Moses, does it command that every adulteress be killed, or should she be divorced by her husband and take nothing with her as she leaves his house?”
Another approach is to ask whether the laws of Moses had to be applied in every case without giving an thought to the circumstances of the guilty. This is parallel to what the four cardinals are doing when they are testing Pope Francis by posing their questions. If he says that “I have changed nothing of what John Paul II has legislated,” then they are in agreement and communion can be permitted only if the couple who marry after being divorced are content to live as brother and sister (without sex). If he says, however, “the application of church rules must always be applied so as to bring healing and health to the sinner within their particular circumstances,” then Pope Francis will have demonstrated (from his own words) that he has changed what John Paul II has legislated, and, as a consequence, cannot be trusted (as they see it).
So, likewise, those who bring their case before Jesus in the temple are of the mind that God requires them to fulfill the law irregardless of the circumstances or cultural framework of those involved. Adultery is a crime before God and before men and it needs to be punished by death. So, in order to test Jesus on this very point, they bring the adulteress before him and prod him saying, “Now in the law, Moses commanded us to stone such women. What do you say?” (John 8:5).
The notion of “testing” here suggests that they want to discredit (κατηγορεῖν) Jesus as an someone opposed to God’s law. The same holds true for the four cardinals: they want to expose Pope Francis as someone opposed to John Paul II (whom they regard as normative and definitive). They imagine that this will discredit him. I, on the other hand, regard this as healthy and necessary for our Church. As Fr. Helmut Schüller, the charismatic founder of the Austrian Priests’ Initiative, says, “Obedience has been overrated.“
So Jesus begins to write in the dust on the temple floor. The men surrounding him might have imagined that he was trying to arrange his mental notes so as to address this difficult case. No one tries to read what he is writing and surely no one imagines that Jesus is writing the secret sins of those who hate this woman and want to punish her as her sins deserve.
For instances of behaviour like this on the part of one who turns away from those around him, and becomes absorbed in himself, giving himself up to his own thoughts or imaginings, from Greek writers (Aristoph. Acharn. 31, and Schol. Diog. Laert. 2. 127) and from the Rabbins [rabbis], see in Wetstein (Meyer’s NT Commentary).
So the men get impatient and prod him further. Finally, Jesus straightens up and says, “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7).
Now, in cases like this, one would expect that men would insist that the husband throw the first stone by way of declaring that he finds his wife to be guilty. Jesus, on the contrary, invites ‘anyone who is persuaded that he is without sin’ to throw the first stone. The stunning effect of Jesus’ words allows us to ignore the fact that these events takes place in the temple and that no one would dare to pollute the temple by stoning a screaming woman in that holy place. Furthermore, in the temple God presence was felt and thus the search for someone “without sin” takes place in the sight of God.
Then Jesus goes back to writing in the dust. Perhaps he has more to say. In any case, he does not try to stare down his accusers or to distract them in any way. So “they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders” (John 8:9). Notice, that the narrator wants the hearer to notice that the very ones bringing the case before Jesus are the first to leave. “One by one” suggests that they were ashamed and, with downcast eyes, moved quietly toward the exit. Finally, one might expect that the corrupt young men who had lusted after this woman and who had secretly wanted to bed her themselves noticed that the game was over and they too needed to leave along with everyone else.
Then, Jesus straightened up and said to her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?” She said, “No one, sir” (John 8:10-11). Jesus thus ends up making the woman conscious that she has effectively been acquitted by all the men (including her own husband). She is now free to return to her husband if she so wishes or to divorce him according to the law if he indeed is a cruel man, but she is not free to ignore the law. This is what Jesus meant when he advised her, “from now on do not sin again” (John 8:11). Notice, he does not say “do not sin again or God will condemn you.” Thus it might be the case that “do no sin again” emerges out of concern for the woman and her future.
What this narrative seems to make clear is that anyone who would impose the law as a pastor or as a judge (a) must not lose touch with their own failings and (b) must not ignore the fact that mercy and forgiveness are always part of interpreting the law.
οὐδὲ ἐγώ σε κατακρ.: I also do not condemn thee. This is not the declaration of the forgiveness of sin, as in Matthew 9:2, Luke 7:48 . . . , on the contrary, it is a refusal to condemn, spoken in the consciousness of His Messianic calling, according to which He had not come to condemn, but to seek and save the lost (John 3:17, John 12:46; Matthew 18:11) (Meyer’s NT Commentary).
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