27 March 2011
Many times people assume that a group of religious men stormed my house and caught me in flagrante delicto, but it wasn’t exactly like that. I’ve heard rumors that some assume I was trapped, set up by a religious man and his buddies, part of a scheme to trap that man, Jesus. It wasn’t like that either.
The truth is, I was committing adultery, but not quite in the way that you might think. According to our law, which we understood to be from God, when a woman’s husband died, her husband’s brother would take her as a wife. Basically, the intention was that any male child she would conceive, then, would inherit in her husband’s name. Thus, property would stay within the family. Property included me, a wife.
My husband had died and his brother was away. I knew the law and I grieved my husband, but I also loved another. A childhood friend was now a widower and we wished to be joined together. We had begun to discuss it and, in the absence of my brother-in-law, a few friends even began to speak as though we would marry. Some of the Pharisees and scribes got wind of the local gossip and pounced on me one day in the market. Since the only real option for me was to marry my brother-in-law, even entertaining the idea of marrying another was tantamount to adultery. Not only was I conspiring to deprive my husband and his family of their rightful heirs, according to the law, but I was also defying God and God’s plan for my life.
I still remember the taste of dust in my mouth as this group of men scurried through the market to the synagogue porch where Jesus was teaching. This was the Court of the Gentiles, between where money was changed and the cool inner rooms of the temple where only Jews were allowed. People who were not allowed inside could sit here and listen to teaching as good as any that happened in the actual building.
Crowds parted for the Pharisees in their official garb and soon our group, several angry men and me, were in front of this man I’d never seen before. He remained seated, refusing to acknowledge the scribes or Pharisees as fellow religious leaders. When I heard one of them hiss his name, “Jesus”, suddenly I knew he was.
I was sweating through my dress, nervous and anxious. I knew I had been wrong to even entertain the idea of marrying another man, outside of the Levirate law, but people skirted these official rules all the time. You did what made sense, made an offering to God and went on with your life. Even the Pharisees and scribes did as well, but they were very careful about getting caught.
So there we were, in front of Jesus, this new rebel rabbi, and one of the Pharisees pushed me forward and said, “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?”
Stone? They were going to try to stone me for this? What could Jesus say? If he says Moses is right, then I’ll be dead in the hour. So much for the new teaching he was said to be doing. If Jesus says Moses is wrong, they’ll stone him and he wouldn’t be around to challenge religious authorities any more.
I wanted to vomit. I could hear the rustling of the crowd as they realized things had just gotten interesting. People were murmuring and a few people caught my eye sympathetically, before looking away. Then Jesus stood up. The Pharisees and scribes straightened because they knew they had him. I wanted to sink into the floor, to be swallowed up into the earth like the Hebrew people from the rebellion in the book of Numbers.
Then Jesus squatted and began writing in the dirt. I know many people have speculated as to what he was writing. Did he write the laws that commanded that the man be stoned with the woman, meaning the husband I was considering need to be here with me? Did he write the laws regarding the two witnesses that were needed for any trial? Did he write something from one of the prophets about God desiring mercy and kindness?
To tell you the truth, I have no idea what he wrote. I was too blinded by fear and, well, I couldn’t read much more than what I needed to in order to figure out prices in the market. However, there was no great reaction to what he wrote. The reaction began when people realized that Jesus was ignoring the authorities. Men who were known for their memorization of the law, their knowledge of the scripture, were always honored. Now they stood around, waiting, clearing their throats, while Jesus doodled in the dirt. One guy, slightly younger than the others, practically turned purple with rage when he figured out that Jesus was ignoring them. A couple of the older scribes laid hands on his arms, to keep him from lunging forward and hitting Jesus.
The scribes and Pharisees began peppering him questions. “Do we do as Moses says or not? What say you? Is God changing? Do you know more than our father, Moses?” Finally, Jesus looked up without standing and said, “All right. If any of you is without sin in this matter, let him throw the first stone.” And he went back to his dust arrangement. He was challenging them not on the grounds of moral perfection, but on the grounds of sexual legality in our religion. Any man who had set aside a wife without good cause, who had failed to perform the required waiting periods after emissions, who might have snuck out and had sex with his wife during her menstruation or a little too soon after she had a baby, anyone who had done any of those things had to step back and wait for someone more pure to throw the first rock.
I braced myself and waited. There was a long silence and then a few of the oldest men shuffled away. There was an audible gasp from the crowd. Jesus kept drawing and I didn’t turn around to see who was left. Finally, I dared to look. Mr. Purple Face clutched a heavy stone and glared at me, then at Jesus, then at the crowd, then Jesus. You could almost hear his teeth grinding, until he dropped the rock and swept out of the court.
I turned back to find Jesus standing and very close to me. He wasn’t much taller than me and his eyes seemed very dark as they looked into mine. “Well, woman,” he said. “Where are your accusers? Hasn’t anyone come forward to present a case against you?”
He saw the whole thing, I thought. But I said, shakily, “No one, sir.” Then he looked at me gently and said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go on and sin no more.” I turned and fled, before he could change his mind, before he could explain to the crowd why I must be killed and then throw the first stone himself.
I’m sure you’ve heard what happened to Jesus after that, but you don’t know what happened to me. I married my brother-in-law, in accordance with the law. It’s what we knew at the time. When I considered marrying someone else, I didn’t think it could matter that much. If I didn’t ask for the money from my first husband’s family, if we went off quietly, it was just a little thing and surely no one was hurt.
That’s what I told myself, but in truth I would have been leaving friends and family whom I had come to know and who were counting on me to do the right thing. What seemed like a little sin would have hurt many people. That’s the difficulty of sin. It inflates the unimportant things and disguises what really matters.
When Jesus looked into my eyes, I knew I had the love I was longing for. "I have forgiven and accepted you. Now respond to my love by allowing me to change your life." Those are the words I heard, somewhere inside me on that day. And I was so grateful to be allowed to live that I resolved to live differently. I didn’t care that much about whether religious authorities had accepted me, but I did care how that man Jesus had accepted me. His forgiveness and gracious challenge to me made me want to be different.
Jesus gave me a chance to love God and love those around me in a different way. Not because it would save me, but because I had already received love and wanted to share it.
I’m sure it sounds strange to all of you, but I just want you to understand what it was like for me, just for a minute. Jesus treated me the same way he treated the Pharisees and the scribes. We were all equal before him and it was as though he could see everything. He could see everything and he was willing to forgive it. He could see everything and he was willing to forgive it. And that day, in that hot courtyard, with the murmuring crowds, it was like he wanted us to learn that’s how we’re supposed to look at one another.