Jesus straightened up and asked her, “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.”
-John 8:10-11 (NIV)
As I write this, a nominee for Supreme Court Justice is being scrutinized for alleged assaults on women when he was a teenager. A formerly-beloved sitcom star and children’s show creator is in prison, convicted of drugging and raping women. A powerful Hollywood producer has been outed for using his position to coerce sex from aspiring young actresses. The CEO of a major entertainment company has resigned after allegations of sexual harassment and intimidation against women who worked for him. The lead pastor of a megachurch has retired after allegations of sexual misconduct by several women, and his replacements and the entire elder board of the church have resigned over the mishandling of the allegations.
Those situations are the ones making the headlines, but they’re far from isolated occurrences among politicians, entertainers, or pastors. It seems that everywhere, in every walk of life, men are being called to account for their mistreatment of women.
Obviously, there’s a problem in our culture: a problem that goes back a long way and reaches into every part of our society.
To be clear, the problem is not that men are being required to answer for past wrongdoing. Yes, everyone probably has something in their past that they’re ashamed of. But there are men who have managed to make it to adulthood without sexually assaulting or harassing women.
The problem is not that women are speaking out instead of just accepting that a culture of misconduct and abuse is the way thing are, and playing along.
The problem is not that women are uptight or oversensitive about these issues.
The problem is not even that a man’s reputation and life could conceivably be ruined over a false allegation. That’s possible, of course, but women’s lives and reputations have been ruined for a long, long time over lies told by men. While false accusations would be tragic, and care should be taken to expose them as such, that danger is no reason to resent or resist the needed correctives.
And correctives are needed, because for a long time now women have been defined in our culture, by men and sometimes even by other women, by what they can do for those in control. They’ve been defined strictly by their roles in the home as wife and mother. They’ve been defined by their attempts to reach for something resembling equality. They’ve been defined by their smaller size. They’ve been defined by their physical appearance. And, as our news feeds tell us nearly every day, they’ve been defined by the sexual pleasure they can provide. Or, what — every woman who has ever told a story of being victimized made that story up? They just misunderstood? They were too sensitive? Come on.
Here’s a corrective: let’s make sure that Jesus is the model for how to treat the women in our lives.
One that comes to mind for me this week is the woman who the gospel of John says was “caught in the act of adultery.” A sin? Definitely. But the men accusing her aren’t really all that interested in her. They aren’t really even interested in the Law they claim to be so concerned about, the Law that they said compels them to stone her. (If that was really what they cared about, they would have known that the Law also said that the man she was with should be stoned.) What they’re interested in is in finding justification for the attitudes they already hold. The woman is just a convenient instrument.
Jesus, though, has real interest in this woman. Not as a sexual partner, as the man she was with apparently had. Not as a way to trap those he disagreed with, as the Pharisees and legal scholars had. What he sees is a person, a creation of God, who’s been mistreated, used, and abused. You see that in the way he deflects the accusations against her. Has she committed a sin? Yes. Is she responsible for it? Yes. (More on that in a minute.) But the sin is only part of the story.
That’s why he writes on the ground. Everyone’s always interested in what he wrote; John doesn’t seem to care about that, just the fact that he did. It’s a strange thing to do, which is the point. One thing it definitely does is draw the hostile crowd’s attention to him and off the woman. You can imagine the whispers, can’t you? What’s he doing? What’s that he’s writing? He’s giving the woman a chance to breathe. He’s giving everyone a chance to reflect.
And then, of course, the classic one-liner: “Whoever hasn’t sinned should be the one to throw the first stone.”
They get the point. Now they see this woman a little more clearly. She’s more or less like them: flawed, imperfect, a sinner — but no more deserving of the treatment she’s getting than they are.
But don’t overlook what Jesus does after that, after they’ve all gone home regretting their past sins. He treats the woman with gentleness and care, sure: “Neither do I condemn you.” But there’s something more than that: “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
I think that’s really important, because it tells you that Jesus doesn’t just see this woman as some poor, fragile, shrinking violet who needs protection. She did need protection. Now she needs someone to see her as a person who can take responsibility for herself. She needs someone to affirm that she has choices to make and that she’s capable of making them. She isn’t defined by her past, or by a husband or the man with whom she committed adultery. She isn’t even defined by the religious leaders’ opinions of her, or by how well she measures up to her society’s standards. Jesus doesn’t even leave her indebted to him. He loves her as a person who has agency and will, and can go forward to choose the kind of life she wants to live.
We all need reminding that this is how the Lord sees us, and so it’s how we should all see each other.
Let’s protect each other when we should. When the strong would grind the weak into the dust, let there be no doubt on whose side we stand.
Let’s make sure we take responsibility for our own sins. And take responsibility to go and sin no more.
And let’s make sure we allow each person the agency and power, as creations of God he called “good,” to make their own decisions and define themselves instead of seeing them only in relation to ourselves.
Whoever we might be.