Throwing The First Stone
Everyone knows the story, so no need to tell it. This is one of the most abused episodes of the Gospel, though I think the “do not judge, lest ye be judged” part must take the biscuit on this. I would like today to speak of an aspect that is, in my opinion, not mentioned enough.
The Romans allowed the Jews a certain amount of self-administration, but only up to a point. The Jewish self-administration did stretch to what we today call criminal justice, but it stopped short of the death penalty. You see this most obviously in the fact that Jesus is brought in front of Pontius Pilate, so that the latter may condemn Him and agree to the wish of the Pharisees to have Him executed. An execution, mind, which is made entirely under the sign of the Roman Eagle, and with the Pharisees as mere onlookers. The cross is a Roman, not a Jewish instrument. Roman soldiers accompany and lead the slow and painful advancement of the three condemned. Roman soldiers dispose among them of Jesus’ expensive tunic. Roman officers decide when to put an end to the whole thing. The entire proceeding is completely under the sign of the Roman Eagle. Everyone would need to see and know who the masters are.
The Romans took their role as occupying force seriously. They would crush every attempt to trample it.
This is why Jesus is posed the famous question: “the woman has been caught in adultery and according to our law she should be executed: what say you?” The trap here is clear: if Jesus had answered “she must be executed” they would have denounced him to the Romans as a subversive, as He publicly presents Himself as alternative to their power, and in opposition to it. If Our Lord had said: “ask the Romans” they would have accused Him of being a toy of the hated Roman occupier. If He had said: “she must not be executed” they would have accused Him of despising the Law.
Jesus turns the table on them, and puts them in a very difficult spot. He exposes their corruption and hypocrisy, but does not do their bidding. His answer is game, set and match. Even if Christianity certainly changed this aspect of the Law, and we can therefore today say whether Jesus was in favour of the public stoning of adultering wives, He did so on His own, not on their terms.
This legal and political aspect of the episode is, in my eyes, too often neglected. In this way we lose a very interesting layer of the story, and fail to fully appreciate another way in which our Lord shows His divinely sophisticated reasoning. Other episodes – the one with the Roman coin comes to mind, or the one with the gold coin in the mouth of the fish – show broadly the same kind of dynamics of, at the same time, turning the table on the opposer and showing him how Truth looks like.
Too easily, it seems to me, the episode gets reduced to the “he who is without sin” narrative; which can be also easily manipulated by the enemies of Christ in an attempt to make you believe no one who isn’t a living Saint should ever open his mouth, or condemn any sin or abomination. A paradise for thieves, murderers, perverts, and heretics. Oh, and evil clowns, of course.
By every public execution of heretics, the Church had someone lighting the first bunch of faggots. By every public hanging of criminals, the Church had a man in charge of the noose. It’s more complicated than the usual, rather absurd “he who is without sin” of your oh so nice, but rather deluded neighbour, who does not understand much of Christianity but is so proud of it.
I wish this aspect were mentioned more often. I have enough of the implicit message of too many, that no one should ever open his mouth.