John 7:53-8:11, commonly referred to as “the woman caught in adultery,” is an irresistible story in Christian memory.
People often refer to this story as they seek to understand how grace, responsibility and discipleship intersect. It is a fascinating and vital part of the early church’s memory and testimony about Jesus.
It is even more fascinating because the early church did not seem to know where to put this story or how to preserve it.
Most modern Bible translations include a footnote to indicate that this passage was absent from what are considered some of the earliest and most reliable Greek manuscripts of John’s Gospel. In others, it appears where we are most familiar with reading it; in other manuscripts it is found not in John but in the Gospel of Luke, after 24:53. (Other less-supported placements of the story include it after the following verses: John 7:36, John 21:25 and Luke 21:38.)
Writings from the third century—a sermon by Ambrose and the Didascalia (Teaching) of the Apostles and the fourth century’s Apostolic Constitutions show an awareness of this story but do not tell us the source. The story gained canonical authority (worthy of being included in the New Testament) in the West in large measure due to Jerome’s decision to include it in the Vulgate (the Latin translation of the Bible), while admitting that some of his sources did not include this passage. Its acceptance in the East was slower, but it did come to be established.
This story’s apparent oral authority but uncertain place in the narrative of the Gospels presents a challenge for for us as we try to better understand its meaning. We frequently explore the context of a passage within a larger work to help shed light on the meaning that an author may have been intending readers to take from a story. This strategy doesn’t work here because we don’t know the correct context.
So, we are left with this story, which plays on our hearts and imaginations.
This ancient text without a clear literary context gets dragged into contemporary debates in the church over judgment and forgiveness, and grace and accountability.
When people wrestled with it a generation ago, the central question of the day was church membership for those who had been divorced and remarried.
Today, the central question is inclusion of people of same-sex orientation—particularly those who are in a same-sex relationship.
In our context, this text gets caught in a now familiar tug of war.
Advocates for greater inclusion use this story to emphasize Jesus’ challenge to the condemning crowd—to measure their own hearts and action. None is found who has the purity to execute the judgment required by the law—this woman shall not be stoned. Let us take heed.
But, scarcely have the stones fallen to the ground, when those seeking to safeguard a disciplined discipleship remind is that Jesus also said, “Go and sin no more.” And while each “side” is certain it knows the spirit of the text, a standoff remains. This text—as we have aligned ourselves around it—holds us in a tension that threatens to dissolve in division. Perhaps this is precisely the purpose of the story.
Holding us in tension.
We may refuse resolution but remain with the tension, knowing that easy yielding to one side or the other may make losers of us all. There is a ditch on both sides of this road that must be taken seriously, and there are many examples of when the church seemed to veer into one ditch or the other.
There is another metaphor that may illuminate something about our struggles with this text.
When I was young, at Boy Scout camp, we used to play tug of war. A heavy rope was stretched over a sloppy, muddy pit with guys divided up at each end of the rope. The goal of this tug of war was to demonstrate your strength by pulling your weaker opponent through the mud. Victory involved humiliation—a public spectacle—of the loser. And thus you proved your manhood.
Which metaphor better characterizes the way you and I have participated in using this text?
Has it been toward a shared wisdom that needs the tension between opposing perspectives to chart a course between two potentially disastrous ditches or has it been a squaring off over this text that aims toward victory as humiliation. In this latter instance, it is now not our physical strength but our righteousness (or at least rightness) that is to be proven, while the other side is dragged through the rhetorical mud.
Perhaps, we already set ourselves up for such a dilemma by nicknaming this text the story “of the woman caught in adultery.”
Why this instead of remembering this story as “Jesus dismisses the crowd”? The first problem that Jesus appears to identify is not the judgment of the woman but of the zealous religious community. They are ready to carry out the full requirement of the law—to stone her. They want to make a public spectacle of her in her death—in the logic of the scapegoat—to cleanse themselves by removing her.
The woman indeed is told to “sin no more.” However, who hears these words? The account tells us, “Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him.” The source for this memory for the church was apparently either the woman or Jesus.
No one else, as far as the text tells us—is left looking on or listening in when Jesus utters these words.
Jesus utters these words to the woman alone, refusing the dismissed crowd the right of a “gotcha.” But he still tells her to sin no more.
The crowd was not permitted to hear these words; this commission by Jesus was not permitted to be an instrument of self-righteousness. “Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
She said, “No one, sir.” And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again.”
Of late, in our debates, deliberations and attempts at discernment over questions of inclusion and membership in Mennonite Church USA, a new perspective is coming to the fore.
This perspective is abandoning the strategies of tug of war in favor of the shared work of not veering off the road. It is being demonstrated in the conversation between Reba Place Church and Chicago Community Mennonite Church. A similar conversation among leaders in Lancaster (Pa.) Conference is seeing that tension can be creative rather than inherently divisive.
I suspect that these and similar conversations springing up around the church reflect the beckoning of the Spirit of God. These conversations challenge the logic of tug of war and replace it with a shared work born of a conviction that we need one another to see more clearly.
More could be said—and certainly more will be said.
But for this moment let us pause to consider—along with those from Reba Place and Community Mennonite of Chicago, of those from Lancaster exploring a radical center—what we learn from those with whom we differ.
A truly missional church understands that its primary witness in the world begins with a cross-breached wall of hostility and that its Spirit-birthed unity is the only real witness it has to the powers and principalities (Eph. 2:14/3:10).
Are we seeing the miracle of the wall of hostility once more being breached and a rebirth of a unity we cannot simply manufacture but that recasts our tensions as a gift to be embraced and explored rather than a struggle one must win and another lose? I hope so.
David Miller is associate professor of missional leadership development at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary, Elkhart, Ind. He is a member at Prairie Street Mennonite Church, Elkhart. This originally ran on the AMBS’s page, “Resources for Conversations about Sexuality.”
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