The Taser's Edge

Visions of Freedom: The Woman Taken in Adultery
Lucas Cranach the Younger. Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery.

Lucas Cranach the Younger. "Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery." Oil on canvas. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg, Russia.

What I love most about this particular rendering of John 8:1-11 is the anachronistic hint of side curls on Jesus.  (Although I think my seeing side curls in a 16th century German painting is anachronistic in itself, it’s nice to for art to say for once that Jesus is Jewish.)

Here is the story of the woman taken in adultery and brought to Jesus for him to render judgment against her.  After the famous, “He who is without sin, cast the first stone,” the crowd of accusers slink away, leaving Jesus with the woman.

In Cranach’s representation, Jesus is actually linking fingers with the woman, as we do today only with a lover.  The adulterous woman is the Church, is the bride of Christ, is every one of us.  Christ is the prophet Hosea, called to marry a prostitute.  Christ actually loves this “ruined” woman.  By how tenderly he holds her hand in his, he shows that he is committed to her, who in Cranach’s representation is already showing that she carries the child of another.  It’s not just an act because Jesus is righteously angry at hypocritical accusers who managed to catch only one member of an adulterous tryst.  Jesus loves her.

In John 8, there is no reason to assume that the woman was not truly caught in adultery.  She is guilty, and Jesus defends a guilty party.  And when Jesus takes up her defense, her accusers can’t even look him in the eye, can’t even remain in his presence.

After the accusers flee, the scene is set for the vision of freedom: Jesus turns to her and asks, (most memorable with King James English), “Woman, where are those thine accusers?”

The center of gravity for this story is most often named as the question of who is innocent enough to declare another guilty.  “He who is without sin, cast the first stone” is made to be synonymous with another famous Jesus quote, “Judge not, lest ye be judged”.  Another popular approach which also puts the emphasis on “He who is without sin” is to use the passage as a Christian position against the death penalty (and heck, if she’s pregnant as Cranach wonders, it’s also about protecting the life of the unborn).

The problem with those readings is that making the passage about who is worthy to judge another neglects the fact that Jesus is worthy to judge yet he doesn’t do it.  Primarily, the passage is not about all of us being guilty.  It is about God’s offer of forgiveness.  And it is about the freedom that comes from receiving forgiveness.

In Cranach’s painting, the background is darkness (perhaps referencing another Gospel scene, in which another victim was taken by a mob of guilty accusers under cover of darkness), and the brightest area is actually the woman’s chest.  She has been brought up on charges of sexual immorality, and yet in the presence of Christ her sexuality is light.  What crazy presence is this Jesus who turns the sexuality of the sexually immoral into light?

It is the same Jesus who makes each of our accusers, external and internal, flee.  Then he turns to us and offers us a terrifying freedom–“No one can accuse but me…and I forgive.  Go and sin no more.”

When Jesus has chosen you as his bride, interlocked fingers with you as his lover, who is your accuser?  What is keeping you from the freedom that He offers?

Perhaps John does not tell us how the woman reacted to Jesus’ final words–whether she stood and stared at Jesus in shock, whether she laughed at her luck and ran off unchanged, or whether she heard an offer of freedom that forever changed her life and the lives of all those whom she met and told the story–because we are the woman and the decision of what to do with Jesus’ words to us is ours.

John does tell us that Mary Magdalene was the first to come to the tomb and see the risen Christ on Easter morning.  Western Christian tradition tells us that this first witness to the resurrection, this great and faith-filled disciple, was the same woman who first met Jesus on the way to her execution.

In the fullness of the Gospel, Jesus saved a sinful woman from the mob and was himself taken by the mob for her sins.  The trial, the verdict, the condemnation, and the penalty of death have all been rendered against his body.  Now Jesus is alive, and the freedom he offers us is so great that he has even freed us to choose not to be free.