Ash Wednesday: "There were left the two: misery and mercy"

The Revd Brutus Green

John 8:1-11

This is the Gospel of Christ, but it is not the Gospel of John. It is rare that Biblical scholarship is unanimous but you won’t find many commentators trying to defend it on these grounds, no matter which century you turn to. The language is not Johanine, we hear of the Mount of Olives, and Jesus disputes with ‘the scribes and the pharisees’, unmentioned in John but common in the other Gospels; it entirely interrupts the flow of the text, which seamlessly flows around it, and it is missing from almost all the earliest manuscripts.

 Is it then discredited and to be ignored? Well, no. In fact, there are even more good reasons for paying careful attention to it. The style is actually very much of a one with Luke’s Gospel and in some manuscripts it finds its possibly rightful place in Luke’s twenty-first chapter. The recording of Jesus in confrontation with religious authorities places it among the most credible accounts of Jesus’ life and teaching, and the attention to detail is suggestive of an eye witness account. But actually what stands most to its credit is just how radical it is. The suggestion of Christ’s mercy cutting through such an obvious case of caught-red-handed, of its summary dismissal of human justice in what looks to be clear cut, is a threat to any institution’s powers of self-correction. That it happens to a woman, someone who is little more than property, with no legal voice, compounds the issue. Female sexuality was firmly under the thumb, at the disposal of men. This story liberates the woman. It is a dangerous text.  And for the emerging church with its many disciplinary issues, which we regularly hear about in Paul’s letters, it is a text which gets a little too close to the bone. How will it be read? How will we maintain the ethics and credibility of our new faith if the hoi polloi get wind that the mercy of Christ may exceed all the law, the teaching and authority of men?

 So we have to thank the scribe who sneaks it into the text here, at a time when the church was a little less insecure, slipping it in as a gloss on Jesus’ saying in the previous chapter not to judge by appearances, because in it we have a record of one of the most striking, comforting and challenging teachings of Jesus.

But what is going on here? We are told first of all that this woman is caught actually ‘in the act of adultery’ - in flagrante delicto. Presumably we can imagine then she is somewhat immodestly dressed, caught no doubt somewhat off guard, and her public humiliation already achieved is only the foretaste to the hoped for violence.

 And it seems that the verdict is already given. When you heard this story, as you probably have done many times before, did you assume that she was guilty? Did the marvellous moral that Christ acquits even the most heinous sin, obscure the fact that no evidence is given, that this is a lynching. Did you also - without thought - pass judgement on the humiliated woman?

And there are gaps. Where is the man? After all it takes two to tango - adultery is a team game. As it stands with in fact no mention of the offending man at all, it is suggestive of either a set up of some sort, or worse of a much darker violence heaped again upon this woman.

 This terrible use of the girl is made even more evident insofar as their actual goal evidently is to trap Jesus. Either he condones circumventing Roman law and punishes her according to Jewish Law, blasting his undeniable popular reputation for liberalism and kindness; or in the very temple itself he denies what the Jewish Law appears to demand.

There is a suggestion here of Jesus’ ironic parodying of man’s justice. He looks away, writing in the dust, as in a Roman court the accusation would have been written impartially in the ledger; with his finger twice, perhaps suggestive of the Word of God’s earlier gift to Moses at Sinai of those same laws traced out upon the two tablets of the Ten Commandments; displayed on the reredos at the back of this very church. Is he positioning himself as the new law giver? Is he suggesting that human law is dust? That it is a vanity blowing on the wind? Is it simply time wasting, or an eye witness account of one of Jesus’ tics? Is he overcome with emotion and unable to look upon either the murdering crowd or the exposed humiliation of the woman?

We have in his riddling response - that the guiltless should throw the first stone - perhaps a suggestion of an answer, for he immediately begins his writing in the sand again. He does not look up. He does not attempt confrontation. There is something impartial in the action, which faces human judgement and says, yes, yes, but who are you to demand punishment? In the heat of conflict he holds up a mirror to the conscience of the would-be-murderers.

The episode is a criticism of all occasions of so-called human justice - of every situation we have been involved with, as an individual, as a community, as a nation, where we have committed violence in the name of justice.

This is not to dismiss the importance, the necessity, of human justice, but it is to show that it is ugly, that everyone is diminished by it, and that we must bear its burden every time it is deployed.

At the end the woman and Jesus are left alone, the oldest - the wisest or the most burdened - having left first. Jesus and the woman. As St Augustine says ‘relicti sunt duo miseria et misericordia’ - there are left the two - misery and mercy:  “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”

This story has always moved me - it is an emotionally involving story. The question to be asked though is - who am I identifying with here? As you heard it, your subconscious may have been running with a modern day parallel in thinking of the atrocities that happen to women still today, still all the time. You may have seen in the angry mob an angry mob in Iran or Somalia. Perhaps if the recent press has caught your attention an image of London gangs came to mind with all the exploitation and violence against women that they are credited with. You probably identified or empathized first of allthen with the woman caught in adultery. Your own secret faults may also have come to mind, perhaps regrets, perhaps residual guilt of damage done or secret shame.

 One of the most, dare I say it, spiritual experiences I have ever had, though, occurred to me when I realised that although I did empathize with the woman I also strongly identified with the crowd of men. Because actually in each of us there is a splinter-self that enjoys a bit of rough justice. That is not unhappy to see another suffer, lose, fall behind; the whisper of justice in your head as someone you don’t like trips up, the thrill of schadenfreude as Richard Dawkins failed to remember the full title of On The Origin of Species. Executions for most of history have been a mainstay of popular entertainment, and it remains to be seen what will change in the bullying morality of salacious gossip, petty self-righteousness and Page 3 girls of the tabloid press, newly available in your souvenir Sun on Sunday this week.

But this was not my spiritual experience. I am mostly aware of my many shortcomings and while ill-equipped to always deal with them, I am not so proud as to deny them. But what I noticed was that the rage of the crowd with which I identified was mostly directed at myself.

Because all of us are angry with ourselves - rock in hand angry with ourselves. Most of us at some point judge ourselves and find what we see wanting. Failed ambitions, disappointing relationships, not what we expected when we expected, not as good, clever, successful, pretty as the guy - or girl - over there. Part of it pride, part vanity and envy; part of it frustration, part guilt, part unreasonable expectations. And we can find each of these looming over the prone body of our vulnerable soul.

Jesus does not claim the woman has not sinned. Rather he tells her not to sin again. She is not left necessarily happy or even relieved. She is left in a state of repentance thankful for mercy. Like the crowd, like us, she has sinned - not necessarily adultery, but we all fall short. Like the men who excised this story from some of the early manuscripts because it was too threatening, too permissive, and in doing so continued the violence of the crowd to this woman. Like them, like the woman, we all live in glass houses. But our aim for Lent is to be like her, to find ourselves alongside Jesus, and to one by one let the jeering crowd of our clamouring anger depart from us, one by one, frustration, disappointment, guilt, vanity, pride. Lent is a time for giving things up. So this year perhaps you could:

Give up self-righteousness.

Give up self-judgement.

Give up self-hatred.

Give up anger.

Give up resentment.

Give up bitterness.

Watch them walk away, starting with the eldest.

‘relicti sunt duo miseria et misericordia.’

‘There were left, the two, misery and mercy’

Left with Jesus you will find no one left to condemn you. ‘Go, and do not sin again.’

Amen.