A Real Live Preacher Dramatized Version of the story from John’s gospel commonly known as “The Woman Caught in Adultery.”
It’s been many years since I wrote one of these. Let me take a moment to explain them. I took the original text, then grappled with interpretive issues. I would create a dramatic account that included my own interpretive stance. Kind of my own Midrash, you might say. The hope was to introduce the interpretive material, but weave it into the story to give it some power.
One more thing: Pharisees were observant Jews. They were not bad people. They were serious about the religious traditions and laws of their day. Jesus, according to the gospels, ran afoul of some Pharisees from time to time. But there is an account of a Pharisee named Nicodemus who seemed to like the teachings of Jesus and had a famous conversation with him.
The story I’m retelling is an important story within Christianity. The larger point is the balance of justice and mercy. The point is NOT to make any sweeping statements about Pharisees in the first century.
The two men in expensive robes looked very out of place in the darkest part of the back streets, but they were not afraid. Their robes and their attitude let everyone know who they were. No one would dare harm them, even at night.
“Do we understand one another?”
“Yes, separate one. I understand perfectly.”
One of the robed men tossed a few coins into the shadows of a doorway. As they turned to walk away he called back over his shoulder.
“Don’t be late. And don’t disappoint me!”
They walked quickly through the alleys with the sleeves of their robes pressed over their noses and mouths. The man who had thrown the coins said to his companion, “A most distasteful business, I must say.”
Jesus came early to the temple the next morning to continue his discussions with a small crowd of people made up mostly of tradesmen from the streets of Jerusalem. They were thrilled that this exciting young rabbi seemed to enjoy teaching regular people. Soon they were knotted around Jesus and engaged in a passionate discussion of the Torah and its interpretation.
Their conversation was interrupted by the panicked shrieks of a woman. All heads turned at the same time to see a group of about ten men pushing their way through the crowd and up to the front where Jesus stood. These were important and very religious men, some of them scholars and officials of the Temple. Others were Pharisees, respected and wealthy men who took pride in keeping themselves away from sinners.
The townspeople around Jesus parted respectfully, allowing the men to the front. Two were dragging a woman along with them. They thrust her violently toward Jesus, and the crowd drew back further when they saw her.
The woman stood with her head down and her hair covering most of her face. Her shoulders were hunched inward with shame, and she was desperately holding a tattered robe around her body. Her feet were bare and her hair was dirty. She was disheveled and confused, and she was not properly covered. A glimpse of her thigh was visible through a fold in the cloth. Under her chin the robe sagged, revealing her collar bone.
One of the Pharisees stepped boldly forward and spoke directly to Jesus. “Honored Rabbi, this woman was caught in the very act of adultery.”
He paused and looked around at the crowd for effect before repeating himself loudly.
“In the VERY ACT! Her guilt is beyond question. We bear witness to it. Now the law of Moses says that we should stone her here and now. But of course, with Jesus here at the temple today, we are fortunate to have an expert opinion on matters of the Law. We wouldn’t want to act hastily. After all, a woman’s life is at stake.”
He cocked his head slightly and stretched his arm out toward Jesus with his palm up.
“So I ask you, rabbi, what do YOU say we should do?”
He said the word “rabbi” with mock intensity, drawing it out until it almost sounded like an insult.
Jesus looked at the group of religious men before him. They met his gaze without looking the slightest bit uncomfortable or unsure of themselves. He turned his head and looked at the small crowd of people who moments before had been listening to him teach and asking questions. They were all looking at him now. Some of them were nodding to each other as if to say, “Yes, I’d like to know what Jesus says about a terrible thing like this.”
Then Jesus turned his eyes to the woman who stood trembling before them all. His eyes moved slowly over her, picking up details that told him something of her story.
She was a woman of the streets; that seemed obvious. She looked hard and desperate. The bottoms of her feet were calloused and thickened, as were the fingers clutching the edges of her cheap robe. She had known hard labor, and the life she now lived made her harder still. Her hair was dirty and there was straw in it. It looked as if someone had thrown her to the ground, tossed the robe at her, and given her a few seconds to make herself presentable.
But something was wrong here. Something was missing. Something nagged at the blurry edges of his awareness, something he couldn’t quite put his finger on.
Jesus slowly lowered himself into a squatting position, eyes still on the woman. Then he looked at the ground before him and wrote with his finger in the dust as he thought and wondered. The crowd was quiet. They stared at him and wondered what he was going to do next.
And then he froze. His index finger stopped moving in the dirt. He understood. He knew what was missing. His eyes closed and he let the air out of his lungs with a groan. His shoulders sagged. He became intent on the ground before him, and he wrote in the dirt, “Where is the man?”
He stood quickly and stepped across what he had written and toward the Pharisee who seemed to be the ringleader. He spoke directly to him, but loud enough for everyone to hear.
“Where is the man?”
“You know what man. It does take two to commit adultery. Why have you not brought him here to face justice alongside her?”
The Pharisee’s face tightened with anger. “The whereabouts of the man are not your concern here today. You call yourself a rabbi, do you not? We have come to you with a legitimate question of the law and of justice. Answer please, honored rabbi. What is to be done with this adulteress who stands before you in obvious guilt? Answer and perhaps we shall talk about the man when we are done with her.”
Jesus narrowed his eyes and stepped forward again until he was standing right in the face of the Pharisee. Years of carpentry work had made Jesus strong. He had broad shoulders and rough hands. But the Pharisee was unafraid. There could be no greater triumph for him than if Jesus were to strike him down.
But Jesus made no violent move toward him. Instead, he spoke softly in a voice that only the two of them could hear.
“You set this up, didn’t you? Yes, of course you did. How does one catch a woman in the very act of adultery, I wonder? How unless he knows ahead of time when it is going to take place. How much did you pay him? I wonder how a man like you even knows how to find people who will do things like this.”
The Pharisee looked calm and spoke in a whisper. “The crowd awaits your answer, rabbi.”
Jesus turned and took three steps back to the side of the woman who had not moved or lifted her head. Her hair still screened her face, perhaps giving her some small feeling of privacy. Jesus stood for a few moments looking at the place in the dirt where he had written “Where is the man?”
Then he addressed the crowd in a loud voice.
“You have called me rabbi, and I willingly accept that title and all that goes with it. You have come to hear my judgment in this matter. Very well, my judgment I will give as long as you pledge to honor it.”
The ringleader squinted and looked suspicious, but the other religious leaders and many in the crowd were nodding in agreement. What he said seemed fair enough.
Jesus bent down and picked up a fist-sized rock. He bobbed it up and down in his hand, feeling its weight, and then he spoke again.
“This is what I say. She is guilty, so stone her according to the Law of Moses. Yes, stone her now and let God’s justice be done!”
The woman screamed in terror, and the crowd exploded into frantic whispers. Everyone was talking at once. The Pharisee who had asked Jesus for judgment smiled. He had never in his wildest dreams expected such an easy and complete victory.
Many in the crowd were shocked and uncomfortable. Although the Law of Moses indeed specified this penalty for her offense, public stoning was rare and frowned on by the Roman government. Many would say that stoning was right, but few had the stomach to cast stones themselves. No one knew how to proceed. Even the religious leaders who brought this woman to Jesus did not think that he would say such a thing. Jesus was supposed to be an advocate of mercy for common people. He was known to associate and even eat with women like this.
Jesus used the confusion of the crowd to maximum effect. He slowly raised the rock over his head and faced the woman. The crowd became silent. All eyes were on him. Then Jesus turned to the man in the fancy robe, the Pharisee.
“You have heard my judgment. Now hear my terms. Let the first man to cast a stone be a man who is himself guilty of no sin! And let him come forward now, before us all, and claim his right to take this rock and carry out this justice.”
With that Jesus hurled the rock at the feet of the ringleader. It hit the ground with a loud thud. Then Jesus squatted back down and resumed writing in the dust by the feet of the woman.
The crowd was stunned. Many stood with their mouths hanging open. Some of the townspeople, empowered by Jesus, nodded in agreement. After a few moments everyone began leave. Some of the religious leaders melted into the crowd and left as well.
Jesus never looked up. He kept his eyes on the ground as the crowd dispersed. In the end, the only one left was the man who had brought the accusation. Feeling his power slipping away, he turned and left himself, uttering a barely audible oath as he walked away.
Jesus squatted in silence beside the woman. When he looked up they were alone. He rose to his feet and spoke to her.
“Daughter of Abraham, lift up your head and look around you.”
“Then lift up your eyes at least and see who condemns you now.”
Slowly, the woman’s hand pulled her matted hair away from her eyes. She looked around, amazed to find that there was no one left but her and Jesus.
“Who is left to condemn you?”
“No one, sir.”
“Then neither do I condemn you. Go your way and be at peace.”
She pulled her robe more tightly around her shoulders, dropped her hair into her eyes again, and began to walk away.
“Daughter of Abraham. I have something to say to you before you go.”
She stopped, but she did not turn around or look up.
“Your name is worth more than this; do not dishonor it. Your life is worth more than this; do not waste it.”
The woman made a slight move with her head that might have been a nod, then started to walk again. Jesus spoke one last time.
“Daughter of Abraham, YOU are worth more than this. Go now and sin no more in this fashion. Be instead the child of God that you were meant to be.”
This time her shoulders shuddered and a soft sob was heard. She ran and disappeared around a corner.
Jesus watched her go and whispered softly to himself, “Go, daughter of Abraham. Go and live your life, for we are all worth more than this.”