From Kevin Vollrath – Churches For Middle East Peace
At dawn he [Jesus] appeared again in the temple courts, where all the people gathered around him, and he sat down to teach them. The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the group and said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.
But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger. When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” Again he stooped down and wrote on the ground.
At this, those who heard began to go away one at a time, the older ones first, until only Jesus was left, with the woman still standing there. Jesus straightened up and asked her, “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared. “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
As we continue to explore spiritual practices this Lenten season, today we consider a Lenten lectionary story about Jesus, which is also a story about Jesus’ commitment to nonviolence. Jesus’ body language says as much as his words. Jesus sits down in the temple courts to teach; this was not uncommon for him. In announcing his fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, Luke writes that Jesus stood up to read the Scripture and sat down to teach on it (Luke 4:17-21). Moses, too, “sat as judge for the people, while the people stood around him from morning until evening” (Exodus 18:13).
From his seated position, Jesus bends down further and writes in the dirt with his finger. Bizarre. After ignoring the Pharisees’ questions about this woman caught in adultery (still no mention of her partner), Jesus “straightened up,” offered a blockbuster quote, and “stooped down,” back to his writing.
The verb John uses to refer to Jesus’ straightening out could mean that he stands up, but more likely means he unbends, rises, or looks up. Jesus is in a vulnerable position. He’s surrounded by a crowd of people, presumably angry, talking about killing someone. I know my gut instinct would be to stand up and raise my voice. But Jesus does the opposite: he keeps sitting and writes in the dirt.
Then he stoops to the ground. I love this image; the verb “stoop down” reminds me of someone doing something cunning, perhaps wearing a cape and hiding rather conspicuously– but that’s probably just the English connotation of “stoop,” as in “stooping to their level.” The Greek word translated as “stooped down” also means “to bow one’s head” or “to bend forward.” It is used only once in the New Testament outside of this passage when John the Baptist states that he is not worthy to “stoop down” and untie the sandals of Jesus (Mark 1:7).
Stooping is a humbling position. Far from demonstrating apathy to his surroundings, Jesus is showing respect. In this, he models the spirituality of nonviolent resistance. Jesus is so secure in his body, his calling, his purpose, that he can bow before those intent upon violence.
Jesus stoops down but does not stoop to quote Scripture to disarm violence, or to meet violence with violence, physical or verbal. Instead, he appeals to the crowd’s shared humanity: their awareness of their sin. Jesus saw within the crowd a bunch of individuals, who have hearts, hopes, and fears, who were eventually disarmed of their commitment to violence and mob-mentality; they “began to go away one at a time” (emphasis added).
Jesus doesn’t deny the scribes and Pharisees’ premises, whether the woman was caught in adultery or whether adultery merits a gruesome death. He isn’t distracted by a debate over Mosaic law, as they hoped he would be. Any of the scribes and Pharisees could easily argue that while all have sinned, not all sins merit stoning. There must have been something about Jesus’ posture, his non-threatening nonverbal communication, that melted their hearts.
I would love to see Jesus stand up for this woman. But I also love this image of a woman condemned to death standing before a stooped-down Jesus, having taken the place of the overpowering crowd, dignity restored. I would love for her to say more than “No one, Lord” in this story. But I also love that she was not made responsible for protecting herself against harms out of her control. I wish Jesus’ body language was more enthusiastic for her and not a mirror image of how he spoke with the angry crowd. But I admire Jesus’ commitment to the radical equality of all people.
This unnamed woman, a premise in a question to trap Jesus, reminds me of many victims of violence today, caught between power struggles, ego battles, proxy wars, and political unrest, mostly out of their control.
“Lent” means spring, a seasonal reference to the new life to which we look forward. Yet even during this season of new life, we are all surrounded by violence. Whether the January 6 US capitol attack or the ongoing assault on black lives through police brutality and unjust incarceration. Whether racist, sexist, anti-Semitic, or homophobic language. Whether manipulation through guilt-trips, shaming each other’s differences, mocking another’s feelings, ignoring others’ needs. Whether ongoing home demolitions in the West Bank or bombing in Yemen or rocket attacks in Irbil. Whether the withholding of humanitarian aid from UNRWA.
May we, like Jesus, sit where violence happens, resolved to disarm rather than escalate. Especially in our places of worship: may accusation and condemnation no longer replace repentance, forgiveness, and grace.
God of Peace, we hope for a world free of violence. We hope for a world free of manipulation, guilt, shame, and inequality. Bless those who take on peace work, whether by choice or out of necessity. Encourage their spirits and protect their bodies. Grant us the humility to wait for peace with both patience as well as fervence. Fix our eyes on Jesus, who endured the cross and scorned its shame for the sake of peace and reconciliation. Grant us the courage to go where peace needs to be sown and the faith to believe that blessed peacemakers will one day be called children of God. Amen.
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