Caught and Shamed
In the Gospel Reading, the scribes and Pharisees bring to Jesus a woman caught in adultery. They make her stand in the middle of the crowd, and they announce that she was caught in the very act of adultery.
The law of Moses prescribes stoning as the punishment for adultery. But it does not permit your doing anything you want to a person caught in adultery. It is clear, however, that the scribes and Pharisees are using this woman just as bait to catch Jesus, and they have no hesitation about shaming her terribly in the process.
Maybe that is one of the reasons Jesus looks down at the ground to write in the dirt. If he is looking down and she is standing up, then he isn’t looking at her. And so he is protecting her in her shame by helping her be hidden from him, alone of all those men staring at her. In caring for her in this way, Jesus is doing something to protect her from the injustice of her captors.
And here’s another thing to see. If this woman was caught in the very act of adultery, as her captors say, then there had to have been a man with her when she was caught. Where is he? Why isn’t he here with her? Did the scribes and Pharisees just let him go? The law of Moses prescribes stoning him too.
The scribes and Pharisees are hypocritical, then; and Jesus catches them in it. He makes clear that they don’t care enough about the law of Moses to keep it themselves. They melt away when Jesus tells them to let the ones without sin be the first to cast stones.
By that move, Jesus diminishes the woman’s shame considerably, doesn’t he? Only when it is clear that her accusers have been caught in their hypocrisy and shamed by it, does Jesus lift up his eyes and look at her.
And so, by his justice for her and his mercy, Jesus catches her for the Lord. Of all those who came to Jesus because of her, she is the only one left standing by him at the end of the story. And she is the only one who calls him “Kyrie” (“Lord,” “Sir”).
Eleonore Stump is Professor of Philosophy, Saint Louis University
**From Saint Louis University