A reflection on John 7:53 - 8:11. With thanks to Juliet Kilpin and Diane Holmes who each got me thinking…
You don’t know my name; no one thought to write it down, yet you probably think you know my story. It is there, the story that is, carefully bracketed, lest you might consider it to be essential, with footnotes in the ‘Nearly Infallible Version’ to remind you that “the earliest and most reliable manuscripts and other ancient witnesses do not have” it. Forgive me my preference for those which note that in the ancient manuscripts my story is found in various locations – within its usual publication and even in another book altogether. So what do you know about me, woman with no name; story bracketed lest it offend your quest for the infallible?
I wonder how you imagine me? A seductress, tempting and teasing some gullible man, luring him into the shadows for pleasure? A young woman, too sex-obsessed to settle down and marry? A prostitute, selling my body? Or a lonely, bruised and bewildered woman who wondered just how it had come to this? Tell me, gentle reader, do you know? Do you ask? Do you care?
I wonder how you see the affair? Were we long-time lovers, our consciences dulled by endless lies and deceit? Or was this the first time we had shared each other’s bodies? Were we married? Divorced? Widowed? Single? Do you wonder? Does it matter?
What do you know of my life? Do you know how I felt? How much I hard searched my soul? How I had prayed for guidance? Does my story touch you where you’d rather not be touched? Does my nakedness expose your own dark secrets?
Me? I’m a Pharisee. I work hard, study hard, pray hard and above all, try to live a decent life. You, of course, have views about people like me – think we’re all hypocrites. Praying on street corners, inventing petty rules to trip up normal people, picking fault with everything and everyone. But what do you really know about me?
How do you imagine my life? A dull, law-bound man with a long beard and no sense of fun? Someone so heavenly minded he’s no earthly good? A heartless brute incapable of forgiveness? Or do you see someone searching for truth, trying to understand, trying to get it right? Do you ask? Do you care?
I wonder how you see the Law? Some ancient set of rules for a bygone age; something to be dispensed with in a new age? Or something that offers freedom and hope, order and security in a world of confusion and despair? Is it just for religious people? For the wealthy? For the learned? Do you wonder, does it matter?
What do you know of my life? Do you know how I felt? How much I had searched my soul? How I had prayed for guidance? Does my story touch you where you’d rather not be touched? Does my quest for truth expose your own judgemental legalism?
An Itinerant Storyteller
My story you think you know well, you retell the stories I told and layer them thickly with tradition. You fear corruption, the taint of something which just might not have been exactly what I said, what I did, and you consign to parentheses a story of grace, a story in which no-one was condemned and everyone healed.
What do you know about her, the woman caught ‘in the act?’ Sure, you wonder about her lover, why he wasn’t there to be executed too, but what do you really know? Do you not see that she is you? Too quickly you deny any hint of sexual sin – who said it had to be sex? Look at her: terrified; all her secrets exposed for the world to see. Tell me you don’t dread your own secrets being laid bare… you cannot, for deep within you know that ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’
And him, that religious official you so readily despise. Can’t you see how he too is you? Oh, you long to deny it, offer all the right words, but deep within you know that you, also, fear the taint of those whose sins are visible whilst your own are safely hidden behind your eyes. Tell me that it’s easy, this path of faith, that you never struggle in your quest for truth… you cannot, for deep within you know your fear tears you apart.
On the one hand, they are right, those men, the choices this woman has made demand a response, and the law makes it clear: she must die. On the other hand, they are wrong, they assume that they are in a position to pass judgement and carry out the execution.
Do you ever wonder why they came to me? Not just what the dear old gospel writers say about trickery, but deep down, in their heart of hearts? Do you ever wonder if, just maybe, one of them was unsure, wanted a second opinion? If, just maybe, some of them felt uneasy about this? Do you ever wonder what it was that stopped them throwing the stones? My words? Or something else?
Hear then the words of grace: your sins are forgiven…
Woman, no one condemns you, put this behind you and move on.
Man, no one condemns your either, put down your stone and walk away
Here, in the parentheses, in the uncertainly placed text of an ancient writer is glimpse of grace and a hope of glory.
You don't know what happened next, of course, no one thought to write it down: you have to imagine how these people's lives were affected. Yet you can know what happens next... for you...