THE WOMAN TAKEN IN ADULTERY.
IN the difficulties which beset the celebrated incident which follows, it is impossible for us to arrive at any certainty as to its true position in the narrative. As there must, however, be some à priori probability that its place was assigned with due reference to the order of events, and as there appear to be some obvious though indirect references to it in the discourses which immediately follow (ex. gr., John viii. 15, 17, 24, 46), I shall proceed to speak of it here, feeling no shadow of a doubt that the incident really happened, even if the form in which it is preserved to us is by no means indisputably genuine.
At the close of the day recorded in the last chapter, Jesus withdrew to the Mount of Olives. Whether He went to the garden of Gethsemane, and to the house of its unknown but friendly owner, or whethernot having where to lay His headHe simply slept, Eastern fashion, on the green turf under those ancient olive-trees, we cannot tell; but it is interesting to trace in Him once more that dislike of crowded cities, that love for the pure, sweet, fresh air, and for the quiet of the lonely hill, which we see in all parts of His career on earth. There was, indeed, in Him nothing of that supercilious sentimentality and morbid egotism which makes men shrink from all contact with their brother-men; nor can they who would be His true servants belong to those merely fantastic philanthropists
"Who sigh for wretchedness, yet shun the wretched,
Coleridge, Religious Musings.
On the contrary, day after day, while His day-time of work continued, we find Him sacrificing all that was dearest and most elevating to His soul, and in spite of heat, and pressure, and conflict, and weariness, calmly pursuing His labours of love amid "the madding crowd's ignoble strife." But in the night-time, when men cannot work, no call of duty required His presence within the walls of Jerusalem; and those who are familiar with the oppressive foulness of ancient cities can best imagine the relief which His spirit must have felt when He could escape from the close streets and thronged bazaars, to cross the ravine, and climb the green slope beyond it, and be alone with His Heavenly Father under the starry night.
But when the day dawned His duties lay once more within the city walls, and in that part of the city where, almost alone, we hear of His presencein the courts of His Father's house. And with the very dawn His enemies contrived a fresh plot against Him, the circumstances of which made their malice even more actually painful than it was intentionally perilous.
It is probable that the hilarity and abandonment of the Feast of Tabernacles, which had grown to be a kind of vintage festival, would often degenerate into acts of licence and immorality, and these would find more numerous opportunities in the general disturbance of ordinary life caused by the dwelling of the whole people in their little leafy booths. One such act had been detected during the previous night, and the guilty woman had been handed over to the Scribes and Pharisees.
Even had the morals of the nation at that time been as clean as in the days when Moses ordained the fearful ordeal of the "water of jealousy"even had these rulers and teachers of the nation been elevated as far above their contemporaries in the real, as in the professed, sanctity of their livesthe discovery, and the threatened punishment, of this miserable adulteress could hardly have failed to move every pure and noble mind to a compassion which would have mingled largely with the horror which her sin inspired. They might, indeed, even on those suppositions, have inflicted the established penalty with a sternness as inflexible as that of the Pilgrim Fathers in the early days of Salem or Providence; but the sternness of a severe and pure-hearted judge is not a sternness which precludes all pity; it is a sternness which would not willingly inflict one unnecessary pangit is a sternness not incompatible with a righteous tenderness, but wholly incompatible with a mixture of meaner and slighter motives, wholly incompatible with a spirit of malignant levity and hideous sport.
But the spirit which actuated these Scribes and Pharisees was not by any means the spirit of a sincere and outraged purity. In the decadence of national life, in the daily familiarity with heathen degradations, in the gradual substitution of a Levitical scrupulosity for a heartfelt religion, the morals of the nation had grown utterly corrupt. The ordeal of the "water of jealousy" had long been abolished, and the death by stoning as a punishment for adultery had long been suffered to fall into desuetude. Not even the Scribes and Pharisees for all their external religiosityhad any genuine horror of an impurity with which their own lives were often stained. They saw in the accident which had put this guilty woman into their power nothing but a chance of annoying, entrapping, possibly even endangering this Prophet of Galilee, whom they already regarded as their deadliest enemy.
It was a curious custom among the Jews to consult distinguished Rabbis in cases of doubt and difficulty; but there was no doubt or difficulty here. It was long since the Mosaic law of death to the adulteress had been demanded or enforced; and even if this had not been the case, the Roman law would, in all probability, have prevented such a sentence from being put in execution. On the other hand, the civil and religious penalties of divorce were open to the injured husband; nor did the case of this woman differ from that of any other who had similarly transgressed. Nor, again, even if they had honestly and sincerely desired the opinion of Jesus, could there have been the slightest excuse for haling the woman herself into His presence, and thus subjecting her to a moral torture which would be rendered all the more insupportable from the close seclusion of women in the East.
And, therefore, to subject her to the superfluous horror of this odious publicityto drag her, fresh from the agony of detection, into the sacred precincts of the Templeto subject this unveiled, dishevelled, terror-stricken woman to the cold and sensual curiosity of a malignant mobto make her, with total disregard to her own sufferings, the mere passive instrument of their hatred against Jesus; and to do all thisnot under the pressure of moral indignation, but in order to gratify a calculating maliceshowed on their parts a cold, hard cynicism, a graceless, pitiless, barbarous brutality of heart and conscience, which could not but prove, in every particular, revolting and hateful to One who alone was infinitely tender, because He alone was infinitely pure.
And so they dragged her to Him, and set her in the midstflagrant guilt subjected to the gaze of stainless Innocence, degraded misery set before the bar of perfect Mercy. And then, just as though their hearts were not full of outrage, they glibly begin, with ironical deference, to set before Him their case. "Master, this woman was seized in the very act of adultery. Now, Moses in the Law commanded us to stone such; but what sayest Thou about her?"
They thought that now they had caught Him in a dilemma. They knew the divine trembling pity which had loved where others hated, and praised where others scorned, and encouraged where others crushed; and they knew how that pity had won for Him the admiration of many, the passionate devotion of not a few. They knew that a publican was among His chosen, that sinners had sat with Him at the banquet, and harlots unreproved had bathed His feet, and listened to His words. Would He then acquit this woman, and so make Himself liable to an accusation of heresy, by placing Himself in open disaccord with the sacred and fiery Law? or, on the other hand, would He belie His own compassion, and be ruthless, and condemn? And, if He did, would He not at once shock the multitude, who were touched by His tenderness, and offend the civil magistrates by making Himself liable to a charge of sedition? How could He possibly get out of the difficulty? Either alternativeheresy or treason, accusation before the Sanhedrin or delation to the Procurator, opposition to the orthodox or alienation from the manywould serve equally well their unscrupulous intentions. And one of these, they thought, must follow. What a happy chance this weak, guilty woman had given them!
Not yet. A sense of all their baseness, their hardness, their malice, their cynical parade of every feeling which pity would temper and delicacy repress, rushed over the mind of Jesus. He blushed for His nation, for His race; He blushed, not for the degradation of the miserable accused, but for the deeper guilt of her unblushing accusers. Glowing with uncontrollable disgust that modes of opposition so irredeemable in their meanness should be put in play against Him, and that He should be made the involuntary centre of such a shameful sceneindignant (for it cannot be irreverent to imagine in Him an intensified degree of emotions which even the humblest of His true followers would have shared) that the sacredness of His personal reserve should thus be shamelessly violated, and that those things which belong to the sphere of a noble reticence should be thus cynically obtruded on His noticeHe bent his face forwards from His seat, and as though He did not, or would not, hear them, stooped and wrote with His finger on the ground.
For any others but such as these it would have been enough. Even if they failed to see in the action a symbol of forgivenessa symbol that the memory of things thus written in the dust might be obliterated and forgottenstill any but these could hardly have failed to interpret the gesture into a distinct indication that in such a matter Jesus would not mix himself. But they saw nothing and understood nothing, and stood there unabashed, still pressing their brutal question, still holding, pointing to, jeering at the woman, with no compunction in their cunning glances, and no relenting in their steeled hearts.
The scene could not last any longer; and, therefore, raising Himself from His stooping attitude, He, who could read their hearts, calmly passed upon them that sad judgment involved in the memorable words"Let him that is without sin among you, first cast the stone at her"
It was not any abrogation of the Mosaic law; it was, on the contrary, an admission of its justice, and doubtless it must have sunk heavily as a death-warrant upon the woman's heart. But it acted in manner wholly unexpected. The terrible law stood written; it was not the time, it was not His will, to rescind it. But, on the other hand, they themselves, by not acting on the law, by referring the whole question to Him as though it needed a new solution, had practically confessed that the law was at present valid in theory alone, that it had fallen into desuetude, and that even with his authority they had no intention of carrying it into action. Since, therefore, the whole proceeding was on their part illegal and irregular, He transfers it by these words from the forum of law to that of conscience. The judge may sometimes be obliged to condemn the criminal brought before him for sins of which he has himself been guilty, but the position of the self-constituted accuser who eagerly demands a needless condemnation is very different. Herein to condemn her would have been in God's sight most fatally to have condemned themselves; to have been the first to cast the stone at her would have been to crush themselves.
He had but glanced at them for a moment, but that glance had read their inmost souls. He had but calmly spoken a few simple words, but those words, like the still small voice to Elijah at Horeb, had been more terrible than wind or earthquake. They had fallen like a spark of fire upon slumbering souls, and lay burning there till "the blushing, shame-faced spirit" mutinied within them. The Scribes and Pharisees stood silent and fearful; they loosed their hold upon the woman; their insolent glances, so full of guile and malice, fell guiltily to the ground. They who had unjustly inflicted, now justly felt the overwhelming anguish of an intolerable shame, while over their guilty consciences there rolled, in crash on crash of thunder, such thoughts as these:"Therefore thou art inexcusable, O man, whosoever thou art that judgest; for wherein thou judgest another, thou condemnest thyself: for thou that judgest doest the same things. But we are sure that the judgment of God is according to truth against them which commit such things. And thinkest thou this, O man, that judgest them which do such things and doest the same, that thou shalt escape the judgment of God? or despisest thou the riches of His goodness, and forbearance, and long-suffering; not knowing that the goodness of God leadeth thee to repentance? but after thy hardness and impenitent heart treasurest up to thyself wrath against the day of wrath and revelation of the righteous judgment of God, who will render to every man according to his deeds." They were "such" as the woman they had condemned, and they dared not stay.
And so, with burning cheeks and cowed hearts, from the eldest to the youngest, one by one gradually, silently they slunk away. He would not add to their shame and confusion of face by watching them: He had no wish further to reveal His knowledge of the impure secrets of their hearts; He would not tempt them to brazen it out before Him, and to lie against the testimony of their own memories; He had stooped down once more, and was writing on the ground.
And when He once more raised His head, all the accusers had melted away: only the woman still cowered before Him on the Temple-floor. She, too, might have gone: none hindered her, and it might have seemed but natural that she should fly anywhere to escape her danger, and to hide her guilt and shame. But remorse, and, it may be, an awful trembling gratitude, in which hope struggled with despair, fixed her there before her Judge. His look, the most terrible of all to meet, because it was the only look that fell on her from a soul robed in the unapproachable majesty of a stainless innocence, was at the same time the most gentle, and the most forgiving. Her stay was a sign of her penitence; her penitence, let us trust, a certain pledge of her future forgiveness. "Two things," as St. Augustine finely says, "were here left alone togetherMisery and Mercy."
"Woman," He asked, "where are those thine accusers? did no one convict thee?"
"No man, Lord." It was the only answer which her lips could find power to frame; and then she received the gracious yet heart-searching permission to depart"Neither do I convict thee. Go; henceforth sin no more." Were the critical evidence against the genuineness of this passage far more overwhelming than it is, it would yet bear upon its surface the strongest possible proof of its own authentic truthfulness. It is hardly too much to say that the mixture which it displays of tragedy and of tendernessthe contrast which it involves between low, cruel cunning, and exalted nobility of intellect and emotiontranscends all power of human imagination to have invented it; while the picture of a divine insight reading the inmost secrets of the heart, and a yet diviner love, which sees those inmost secrets with larger eyes than ours, furnish us with a conception of Christ's power and person at once too lofty and too original to have been founded on anything but fact. No one could have invented, for few could even appreciate, the sovereign purity and ineffable charmthe serene authority of condemnation, and of pardonby which the story is so deeply characterised. The repeated instances in which, without a moment's hesitation, He foiled the crafty designs of His enemies, and in foiling them taught for ever some eternal principle of thought and action, are among the most unique and decisive proofs of His more than human wisdom; and yet not one of those gleams of sacred light which were struck from Him by collision with the malice or hate of man was brighter or more beautiful than this. The very fact that the narrative found so little favour in the early centuries of Church historythe fact that whole Churches regarded the narrative as dangerous in its tendencythe fact that eminent Fathers of the Church either ignore it or speak of it in a semi-apologetic tonein these facts we see the most decisive proof that its real moral and meaning are too transcendent to admit of its having been originally invented, or interpolated without adequate authority into the sacred text. Yet it is strange that any should have failed to see that in the ray of mercy which thus streamed from heaven upon the wretched sinner, the sin assumed an aspect tenfold more heinous, tenfold more repulsive to the conscience of mankindto every conscience which accepts it as a law of life that it should strive to be holy as God is holy, and pure as He is pure.
However painful this scene must have been to the holy and loving heart of the Saviour, it was at least alleviated by the sense of that compassionate deliverancedeliverance, we may trust, for Eternity, no less than Timewhich it had wrought for one guilty soul. But the scenes that followed were a climax of perpetual misunderstandings, fluctuating impressions, and bitter taunts, which caused the great and joyous festival to end with a sudden burst of rage, and an attempt of the Jewish leaders to make an end of Himnot by public accusation, but by furious violence.
For, on the same daythe eighth day of the feast if the last narrative has got displaced, the day after the feast if it belongs to the true sequence of eventsJesus continued those interrupted discourses which were intended almost for the last time to set clearly before the Jewish nation His divine claims.
He was seated at that moment in the Treasuryeither some special building in the Temple so called, or that part of the court of the women which contained the thirteen chests with trumpet-shaped openingscalled shopherôthinto which the people, and especially the Pharisees, used to cast their gifts. In this court, and therefore close beside Him, were two gigantic candelabra, fifty cubits high and sumptuously gilded, on the summit of which, nightly, during the Feast of Tabernacles, lamps were lit which shed their soft light over all the city. Round these lamps the people, in their joyful enthusiasm, and even the stateliest Priests and Pharisees, joined in festal dances, while, to the sound of flutes and other music, the Levites, drawn up in array on the fifteen steps which led up to the court, chanted the beautiful Psalms which early received the title of "Songs of Degrees."
In allusion to these great lamps, on which some circumstance of the moment may have concentrated the attention of the hearers, Christ exclaimed to them, "I am the Light of the world." It was His constant plan to shape the illustrations of His discourses by those external incidents which would rouse the deepest attention, and fix the words most indelibly on the memories of His hearers. The Pharisees who heard His words charged Him with idle self-glorification; but He showed them that He had His Father's testimony, and that even were it not so, the Light can only be seen, only be known, by the evidence of its own existence; without it, neither itself nor anything else is visible. They asked Him, "Where is Thy Father?" He told them, that, not knowing Him, they could not know His Father; and then He once more sadly warned them that His departure was nigh, and that then they would be unable to come to Him. Their only reply was a taunting inquiry whether, by committing suicide, He meant to plunge Himself in the darkest regions of the grave? Nay, He made them understand, it was they, not He, who were from belowthey, not He, who were destined, if they persisted in unbelief of His eternal existence, to that dark end. "Who art thou?" they once more asked, in angry and faithless perplexity. "Altogether that which I am telling you," He calmly answered. They wanted Him to announce Himself as the Messiah, and so become their temporal deliverer; but He will only tell them the far deeper, more eternal truths, that He is the Light, and the Life, and the Living Water, and that He came from the Fatheras they, too, should know when they had lifted Him up upon the cross. They were looking solely for the Messiah of the Jews: He would have them know him as the Redeemer of the world, the Saviour of their souls.
As they heard Him speak, many, even of these fierce enemies, were won over to a belief in Him: but it was a wavering belief, a half belief, a false belief, a belief mingled with a thousand worldly and erroneous fancies, not a belief which had in it any saving power, or on which He could rely. And He put it to an immediate test, which revealed its hollowness, and changed it into mad hatred. He told them that faithfulness and obedience were the marks of true discipleship, and the requisites of true freedom. The word freedom acted as a touchstone to show the spuriousness of their incipient faith. They knew of no freedom but that political freedom which they falsely asserted; they resented the promise of future spiritual freedom in lieu of the achievement of present national freedom. So Jesus showed them that they were still the slaves of sin, and in name only, not in reality, the children of Abraham, or the children of God. They were absorbed with pride when they thought of the purity of their ancestral origin, and the privilege of their exclusive monotheism; but He told them that in very truth they were, by spiritual affinity, the affinity of cruelty and falsehood, children of him who was a liar and a murderer from the beginning children of the devil. That home-rebuke stung them to fury. They repaid it by calling Jesus a Samaritan, and a demoniac. Our Lord gently put the taunt aside, and once more held out to them the gracious promise that if they will but keep His sayings, they not only shall not die in their sins, but shall not see death. Their dull, blind hearts could not even imagine a spiritual meaning in His words. They could only charge Him with demoniac arrogance and insolence in making Himself greater than Abraham and the prophets, of whom they could only think as dead. Jesus told them that in prophetic vision, perhaps too by spiritual intuition, in that other world, Abraham, who was not dead, but living, saw and rejoiced to see His day. Such an assertion appeared to them either senseless or blasphemous. "Abraham has been dead for seventeen centuries; Thou art not even fifty years old; how are we to understand such words as these?" Then very gently, but with great solemnity, and with that formula of asseveration which He only used when he announced His most solemn truths, the Saviour revealed to them His eternity, His Divine pre-existence before He had entered the tabernacle of mortal flesh:
"Verily, verily I say unto you, Before Abraham came into existence, I am."
Then, with a burst of impetuous furyone of those paroxysms of sudden, uncontrollable, frantic rage to which this people has in all ages been liable upon any collision with its religious convictionsthey took up stones to stone Him. But the very blindness of their rage made it more easy to elude them. His hour was not yet come. With perfect calmness He departed unhurt out of the Temple.