“Christ and the Adulteress”
Valentin de Boulogne
(1591 - 1632)
The J. Paul Getty Museum
Los Angeles, United States
Light illuminates the neck and shoulders of a woman looking down at the figure of Christ kneeling on the ground. The Pharisees had brought to Christ a woman caught in the act of committing adultery. When they asked whether she should be stoned, he stooped down and began to write with his finger on the ground. When they continued to ask, Christ said, "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her". The male accusers watch with varying expressions; some absorb Christ's words, while others recollect their own transgressions. Profoundly influenced by Caravaggio's realism and dramatic lighting, Valentin de Boulogne used light and shadow and a shallow frieze-like arrangement of figures to convey the scene's emotion.
Figures fade into the dark background while faces, hands, and even a knee emerge from the dimness. The figures are highly individualized, especially the old man at the right who holds his glasses firmly to his nose in order to see better and the elderly man with the weathered face and scraggly hair who holds his cape back against his shoulder. For this biblical narrative, Boulogne used contemporary, working-class people as models, a practice initiated by Caravaggio at the turn of the Century.
John 8: 1-11
1“While Jesus went to the Mount of Olives. 2 Early in the morning he came again to the temple. All the people came to him and he sat down and began to teach them. 3 The scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery; and making her stand before all of them, 4 they said to him, ‘Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. 5 Now in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?’ 6 They said this to test him, so that they might have some charge to bring against him. Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. 7 When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, ‘Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her’. 8 And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. 9 When they heard it, they went away, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing before him. 10 Jesus straightened up and said to her, ‘Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?’ 11 She said, ‘No one, sir’. And Jesus said, ‘Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on do not sin again’”.
According to scholars, this passage did not form part of the original Gospel of John. The earliest reference to the story found in this passage is of the 3rd Century A.D. It must therefore be a story dating back to Jesus that was passed along by oral tradition and possibly used to solve the problem of forgiveness of sin for baptised Christians.
Scholars argue that it sounds more like a passage from the Gospel of Luke rather than the Gospel of John as it deals with mercy, sin and a woman which are themes that often appear in Luke.
In this Gospel we have two streams converging:
Jesus arrives from his place of prayer at the Mount of Olives and shares his insight and wisdom;
The Scribes and Pharisees come from judgement and are set on vengeance.
They have totally different mindsets. The Scribes and Pharisees were the religiousgurus of their time and supposedly experts in the interpretation of Word of God. They hoped they would embarrass Jesus by confronting him with this adulterous woman. But quite the opposite happened. They, rather than she, received the more severe judgement.
The elephant in the room
If we look closely at the text, the woman was “caught committing adultery” That is a very odd statement. The sexual act was and still is never legally committed in public so how did they catch them? And if it was an adulterous act then I would imagine people would be rather more discreet about it. Consequently, the fact that her accusers caught her in the act speaks volumes about them rather than her. However, the elephant in the room in this passage is … “Where is the man?” It takes two -yet only the woman is subject to the penalty of stoning. Mosaic law insisted that “both the adulterer and the adulteress must be put to death”. So why did they not bring the man too? Did they want to protect the man at the expense of the woman? Men had greater hierarchical power during that time, so possibly yes. But the Scribes and Pharisees had a simple objective in mind and that was to discredit Jesus. The woman was a means to an end.
The writing in the sand
Jesus responds to the demands of the Pharisees in a way which must have bewildered them: “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone”. Not at all what they were expecting! To say Jesus was very ‘sharp’ is not a word we normally associate him with, but He really took them by surprise. They thought they had caught him out! How wrong they were!
And the doodling in the sand: We can never really know what He was doing, but possibly He was giving his accusers enough time to reflect on the magnitude of the crime they were about to commit?
It has also been suggested that He was writing the sins of his accusers in the sand. It must have been quite disconcerting for them.
The religious leaders brought this woman to Jesus in shame-filled, humiliating circumstances. She was a prisoner in the custody of the religious police. It has to be said that there is no-one more judgemental than the self-righteous phoney. ‘Where other people are concerned, high standards are set. But when it comes to himself, he can be utterly blind and all-forgiving’.
A very serious sin has been committed here and I do not mean the adultery. I’m referring to the very manner in which the Scribes and Pharisees treated this woman. They absolutely humiliated her with their public shaming and showed no regard for her feelings. She was merely someone they could use to entrap Jesus. She was the bait that was sacrificed in the hope of catching the bigger fish – Jesus. Their sole aim is to catch Jesus out.
“Teacher, we found this woman in adultery, in the very act” (v.4).
“Teacher” would ordinarily be a respectful form of address, but in this case, it is part of their scheme to entrap Jesus. First, they acknowledge Jesus as an authority. Then, they present him with a problem that they believe will catch him out.
If Jesus had told the teachers of the law and the Pharisees not to stone the woman, then He would have been accused of breaking Jewish Law. On the other hand, if Jesus had given the instruction for the mob to stone the woman, He would have been accused of being hypocritical and abandoning His teachings of mercy and forgiveness. What to do?
Jesus cuts through the trap deftly – “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her” What a blinder played by Jesus! No-one could have seen that coming.
Jesus condemned the woman’s sin but not the woman herself. He distinguished between the sin and the sinner. He got her to own her sin and take responsibility for it and she went away free to change her behaviour and regain her self-respect.
Jesus here reminds us that people are capable of changing if they are given the chance. We have heard this account since our earliest days, so the shock impact is lost; but imagine the jaw-dropping disbelief of the self-righteous members of Jewish society.
This story often invites people to heap criticism on the Pharisees. We can easily become critical, judgemental and superior just as we notice these traits in the Pharisees. Jesus says ‘Do not look out – Look in’. We need to examine our own conscience in how we indulge in gossip and innuendo about our neighbours. Judging our neighbour is no different to picking up the stone and throwing it.
As Christians, we can sometimes confuse the qualities of compassion and gentleness with playing the doormat. We so often seek the most compassionate approach – the approach of Our Lord: indeed, here He was compassionate, but He was able to marry that with sharp thinking.
We, on the other hand, can be so earnest in being compassionate and kind, that we can go to the extreme and end up being the martyr in trying situations.
If this passage teaches us anything it is that being compassionate is not to be mixed up with being foolish or allowing ourselves to be the victim in our relationship with others. God gave us a brain and the ability to reason and we need to use them well.
As Christians we should not shy away from being quick-witted or sharp in our thinking and responses; we can be so whilst also being compassionate at the same time. This passage is the perfect illustration of that. So, we must be confident and slay the enemy when he rears his head!!!
“The quality of mercy is not strained / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven
Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest;
It blesseth him that gives and him that takes:
‘T is mightiest in the mighty; it becomes
the throned monarch better than his crown:
It is enshrined in the hearts of kings. / It is an attribute of God himself.
And earthly power doth then show likest God’s
when mercy seasons justice.
Therefore, though justice be thy plea, consider this –
That in the course of justice none of us should see salvation.
We do pray for mercy,
And the same prayer doth teach us all / To render the deeds of mercy”.
“They said this to test him, so that they could have some charge to bring against him.”
o When have I sought to highlight someone’s flaws or errors?
o How can I meet people with kindness instead of cynicism?
“Beginning with the elders.”
o How have my elders shared their faith with me?
o How can I help to pass the faith on to future generations?
“Neither do I condemn you. Go, and from now on do not sin anymore.”
o How have I condemned others?
o With the help of God’s grace, how can I foster repentance and conversion
in my life?
Forgiveness is truly a blessed gift from God.
o Do I ever withhold forgiveness from another?
o Forgiveness serves our spiritual interest by preventing bitterness from
clouding our ability to love.
o Three little words, ‘I forgive you’, they mean so very, very much, almost as
much as, ‘please Father, forgive me’.