Fourth Sunday of Lent
Dear Sisters and Bothers in Christ
This week in the morning prayer readings was the episode of the woman caught it adultery in John 8.3-11. I’ve always found this narrative a bit irritating because first of course the Pharisees only bring the woman, not the man. And then there is Jesus, who bends down and writes something in the sand, and there is no way we can even begin to know what he was writing. Of course, I was reading this passage with human eyes, through my own interests and prejudices. I’ve been appalled at the injustice of the woman taking the blame, the double standard – and that is an important issue, and less important, I really hate the idea that any text is lost, or can’t be known. What was Jesus writing???
But this week I heard something different. I saw that this passage is fundamentally about God’s way of seeing each of us. When the Pharisees accost Jesus in the Temple dragging this woman through the crowds in that holy place she is experiencing humiliation, she has been reduced to a thing – an adulteress – and displayed like a piece of evidence. You can imagine that everyone in that part of the Temple was staring at her, condemning her. Jesus refuses to stare at her, instead he does a most amazing thing. He bends down, he sets himself lower than she. This posture echoes or foreshadows his servant position when he washes his disciples’ feet later in John’s Gospel. And not only does he lower his body in the presence of this woman and her accusers, he chooses not to focus any attention on her, or on the accusers, but instead on the ground and his writing. Through the position of his body and his attention on the ground, he in effect, shields the woman until he can save her. He uses logic with the accusers, but also speaks to what is best in them despite the appalling behavior they are exhibiting. Can they, who have sinned, condemn another? This is pretty miraculous in and of itself. The sexual double standard has existed for a long time. For these men to understand that their sins, whatever they may be, are equivalent to a woman committing adultery, is a sure sign of the working of God and promises redemption for these accusers. They respond to God’s logic, which is made up completely of God’s love.
The men walk away, and the crowds disburse, there is nothing to see here, there will be no stoning. And it is just Jesus and the woman. And then Jesus stands, and then he looks at her and he sees her, not as the ‘woman caught in adultery’ but as a child of God, in all her beauty, and in all the perfection that God intends for her. And his gaze washes her clean of her human imperfections.
This, of course, is not unusual in what we know of Jesus. He sees people, he sees them the way God sees them, in their pureness, in the way they were created. And when Jesus looks upon a person, they are healed – in body, mind, and spirit. Jesus looks at each of us this way, his gaze is constantly upon us. As the Psalmist says, ‘Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence?’ (Ps. 139.7). We are perpetually in the loving, healing, and invigorating gaze of our Lord. The Gospels invite us to look upon people in this way also, to look upon others as children of God. Try it with the next person you see – look at them as Jesus would see them. It is about changing the lens, dropping the stone of condemnation that we often hurl at others before we even think about it. What beauties can we see when that which clouds our mind with human judgement is set aside, and all we see are God’s glorious creatures.
Revd Professor Jessica Malay
Almondbury with Farnley Tyas