There are many circles of violence in this Sunday’s gospel story (Jn 8:1-11).
The woman is not without fault. She was caught in the act of adultery. That was a free choice on her part as well as a free choice by the man she committed the sin with. Adultery is an act of violence against the covenant of marriage. It is worthwhile to note that after everyone walks away Jesus says, “Neither do I condemn you.” It is in the mercy of God that she is freed from condemnation but there is judgment on her sin, her participation in that act of violence. Jesus says, “Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”
The crowd is also caught up in the circle of violence as they stand ready to stone this woman. These two circles of violence (the act of adultery and the desire to kill) are clearly visible and apparent but there are still other circles of violence. There is a further circle of violence against the woman – she is being used. The gospel lays it out clearly. The scribes and Pharisees are using the woman to try to trap Jesus. “They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him.” They have no real interest in the woman, their focus is on Jesus and she (and apparently even her very life) means nothing, she is just a means to get at Jesus. To reduce another person in any circumstance to a “means to an end” is an act of violence.
There is a further and even more profound act of violence. The scribes and Pharisees, so proud of their religious observance, are trying to use both the commandments and even God. Again, their intent here is to trap Jesus and not to give honor to the commandments of God and therefore, even God himself. On their lips they say, “Now in the law, Moses commanded us…” but in their hearts their intent is far from giving honor to the law but rather to trap Jesus. It is in their intent that we see that they are trying to reduce the commandments of God and even God himself to a means to an end. This is an act of violence. God will never be reduced to a means to an end.
All of these circles of violence within eleven verses.
Probably beginning the very day that these verses were written, we have wondered what it means that Jesus bent down and wrote on the ground. There are all sorts of interpretations of this action. A thought that I have is that, by this simple action, Jesus is clearly showing that he will not participate, he will not get caught up in any of these circles of violence. He will not condone the woman’s act of violence, he will not get caught up in desire to kill, he will neither use a person nor his heavenly Father as a means to an end. He will not … by writing in the sand, our Lord demonstrates his refusal and disdain for all these circles of violence.
Once he straightens up and looks around, the answer he gives immediately cuts through all of these circles of violence. “Let the one among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” All walk away. The circles of violence have been broken, no stronger than the dust Jesus was just drawing in.
Throughout his preaching, St. Paul never tired of letting people know how he had persecuted the church before his encounter with Christ. St. Peter, never tired of sharing how he had denied knowing Christ in the courtyard of the high priest. Both men and all of the apostles never tired of sharing how Jesus had rescued them from the circles of violence in their lives and how Jesus shows us a different way and makes it possible for us to live this way.
Isaiah foretold it, “Thus says the Lord, who opens a way in the sea and a path in the mighty waters … In the desert I make a way, in the wasteland, rivers.” (Is. 43:16-21)
Now, in Christ, we do not have to live in the circles of violence. We do not have to participate. We do not have to get caught up in the violence. There is a different way. We find it when we allow Jesus to find us.
Jesus sets us free to walk this new way.