Jesus and “the woman caught in adultery”

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This is by Kim Young Gil (a Korean artist, 1940–2008), entitled The Woman Caught in Adultery.

It pictures that crisis moment in John 8 when Jesus stands between an angry, vengeful crowd and their would-be victim, an exposed and humiliated woman. She had been “caught in the very act of adultery” and dragged before Jesus for his judgement.

But it’s all a trick. The crowd are incited by those who are not interested in the woman or in justice but only in catching Jesus out and exposing and humiliating him.

If he lets the woman go then he is revealed as too soft – someone who treats the Law with contempt, and who has little regard for the traditions of Moses.

If, on the other hand, he agrees that the woman should be stoned, on the basis of the rigorous severity of Old Testament Law, then he is revealed as too hard, unmerciful and unloving, despite his popular reputation to the contrary…

And the picture shows the contrast between the two positions. Look at the eyes of the people in the crowd. They are completely manic, frenzied, even prurient.

Look at that accusatory finger.

It’s been suggested that the young man in front is the hapless partner of the woman but I think this unlikely. It’s more likely to be a symbol of the artist himself, expressing his own perspective of compassion.

And what of Jesus? In the gospel story, he remains calm and unruffled, seated and drawing in the sand, refusing to be hurried into an abrupt response. How can he marry justice and mercy? How can he demonstrate love and tenderness and yet acknowledge the validity of God’s righteousness, that only the one “with clean hands and a pure heart ” may ascend the hill of the Lord (Psalm 24)?

Kim Young-Gil’s picture is powerful. Jesus has risen and taken a step to put himself between mob and victim. If they want to stone her now, they will have to stone him too. (It will come to that, soon enough). He has put a hand on her shoulder, like a good father, but she seems too ashamed to notice. His face is calm and kind but his eyes are unreadable.

That’s the moment of the picture. It invites you to make your own decision. The Greek word for decision (or “judgement”) is krisis from which we derive our English word “crisis.” And it’s certainly that. A crisis of judgement.

But who is being judged? Ostensibly, it’s the woman, of course. There’s no mention of the man involved (unless he’s the anxious face in the crowd with the furrowed brow!). Shouldn’t he be on “trial” too?

And deep in the subtext, as I said, Jesus himself is on trial, as far as the instigators of this lynch-mob are concerned.

But Jesus, as he so often did, flips the whole thing round, and puts the crowd on trial. “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone.

And in one sentence everything changes. Jesus has endorsed the “legal requirement” (such as it is), but also made the powerful point that only the sinless can judge sin. We are simply incapable of doing it right! Our compassion looks like compliance and weakness and our “right-ness” looks like vengeance and harshness.

Only one who has been “tempted in every way, yet without sin“can possibly judge sin correctly.

And that’s Jesus himself.

So the crowd disperses, until Jesus is left alone with the woman. The gospel narrative concludes thus:

‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’

 ‘No one, sir,’ she said.

‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’

He doesn’t ignore her sin, or brush it under the carpet or pretend it doesn’t matter. Indeed, he acknowledges it, and encourages her to forsake it.

But he offers mercy, and a way out.

Lord, I turn my decision-making about other people over to you, knowing that I just can’t get it right myself. I’m either too soft or too hard.

But when I look at the picture, there are a couple of things that I think I can do. I can kneel with the victim, and show compassion. And I can put my hand on their shoulder, and offer protection (even if it affects me, as it did you).

So enable me to be strong and loving enough, to do those things.

Because I realize that Me and my Attitudes are also on trial, right here and right now, in every criticism I express and every judgement I pass, on other people. (So help me, Lord. It’s a biggie).

I pray these things so that I may be a creator of grace moments in my life and in my world, for Jesus’sake.

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