Many years ago I was asked to visit a patient in a psychiatric hospital. When I arrived, the patient was with a nurse so I had to wait. I was shown into a large room. At first, I thought I was alone until I sat down. At the other end of the room sitting at a small table was a young woman. On the table was a jigsaw puzzle which she was trying to put together. She held up two small pieces of the puzzle that did not match. She tried to force them together, then she would drop one and pick up another, banging them on the table trying to make them fit. Then some fell on the floor, and she became more agitated. She looked down and said softly to herself, “The pieces don’t fit, the pieces don’t fit.”
Many of us have said something similar at some time in our life. When it seems that everything has gone wrong, life is out of control, you do not know where to turn or to whom, the pieces of our life just do not seem to fit together no matter how hard we try.
We have a woman in our Gospel today whose life had fallen apart, who had committed one of the gravest sins in her culture. It must have been a dramatic scene. Jesus was sitting down quietly teaching in what must have been one of the outer courts of the temple. Suddenly and with great commotion, the religious leaders of the people drag in a woman and place her before Jesus and in front of everyone else. She had been caught in adultery and the law prescribes that she be killed by stoning. They knew that the legal system in Palestine at the time did not allow for capital punishment, only the Romans could put a person to death, but they were sure they had Jesus.
The trap was clever and legally air-tight. If Jesus spoke against the woman’s execution, they would discredit Him before the religious establishment for speaking against Mosaic Law. If, on the other hand, He sanctioned stoning, He would not only lose His reputation for love and forgiveness but He could be tried as a criminal for disregarding the law of Rome. It was a no-win situation.
But Jesus was not going to let the law become a barrier between Him and the person in front of Him, she was His first concern. Jesus does not say anything. He bends over and writes in the sand. The crowd is silent, the temple courtyard comes to a standstill, watching, waiting; the silence is deafening. The woman stands in front of Jesus surrounded by her accusers who are fast becoming embarrassed by the silence. This is not what they expected. What is He up to? What is He writing?
So they try again: this woman was caught in adultery. The Law of Moses says she must be stoned, what do You say? Jesus looks up, and utters one sentence: “Let the one among you who has not sinned cast the first stone.” Then He leans over and continues to write in the sand.
Jesus sees the situation from another perspective, a different focus. Only this woman is to be condemned, the man is not mentioned. There is a double standard, a double standard rejected by Jesus. He takes the side of the woman who is being used as a ploy to catch Him in a legal trap. Jesus offers her forgiveness. She is forgiven. She is free.
In contrast, He calls her accusers sinners. They all depart, one by one, beginning with the eldest. The situation at first appeared legal and air-tight, but it takes on an entirely new perspective from the focus of equality and justice.
We see something radically new in Jesus. He tells us, do not be so quick to condemn, so quick to highlight the wrongdoing of others while concealing your own. Do not be so caught up only in what a person has been that you fail to see what they could become. Jesus does not say that what the sinner has done did not matter, broken laws and broken hearts always matter. Instead, Jesus points out to us that every person, no matter how sinful, has a future, as well as a past. It is not, of course, that there is no place for accountability. It is just that there is no place for condemnation. Once we face our own sins, there is no place for stoning.
We know nothing about her. We never hear of her again. She has no name. The risk for her may well have been her sense of guilt. How can a God who prizes fidelity ever forgive my infidelity? How can I expect my husband to forgive me? Above all, how can I ever forgive myself? This strange, unique, compassionate Man has told me that He does not condemn me, and that no other Jew is this area dares to condemn me, but how can I live with their leering looks? Live with my husband? Live with myself?
So what happened next? After the crowd dispersed and the rocks fell from their hands to the dust, after the woman heard the voice of Jesus pointing her to her future instead of always reminding her of her past, what happened then? Where did the woman go?
How did people treat her after all of this?
I hope someone came forward with a shawl and an embrace. Raised her to her feet, and took her home to get cleaned up. I hope someone helped her find a job and gave her a way to provide for herself with dignity. I hope that people continued to treat her in a way that reminded her of the forgiving love of God that she first experienced in the face of Jesus that day in the dust. I also hope that, perhaps for the first time, the pieces of her life started to fit.