... early in the morning he arrived again in the temple area, and all the people started coming to him, and he sat down and taught them. Then the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in adultery
In this familiar story Saint John tells us that Jesus "sat down and taught them" and, a few minutes later, that he "bent down and wrote on the ground." Since his sitting down is immediately followed by the arrival of the scribes and Pharisees we should suppose that this story is his teaching. Students might not remember what the teacher said in any given class but they will remember what happened, especially if it involved a major intrusion and the teacher's courageous action. Jesus and the Evangelist have transformed this altercation into a moral teaching.
The Church, too, places this gospel story beside the story from the Book of Daniel, the trial of Susanna. I cannot say how long they have been linked but I believe our weekday lectionary was published in the 1970's. This is a lesson for our time, an opportunity to reflect on relations between men and women.
The Church and the Spirit invite us to pray for guidance; how should men and women relate to one another in the Kingdom of God?
Certainly, there is no excuse for molesting, exploitation or harassment of women or children. The Book of Genesis tells us that inequality between men and women began with the Fall. God said to Eve, "...your urge shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you." The disparity of power between men and women is a punishment; it was not God's intention from the outset. It need not be nor will it last forever.
Reflecting on the promise of graces that must flow from Jesus' resurrection, Saint Paul said, "There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male and female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28) In fact, sin creates all inequality of power. If authority is given to some persons in the community -- parents, pastors, employers, government officials -- it is not a privilege but a burden and an obligation.
As one spiritual director told me when I wondered if I should volunteer to be guardian of a friary, "It is nothing but a cross!"
In my experience, those who have exercised authority as pastors or parents or principals of whatever institution must live the rest of their lives with searing memories of their moral failings. They are amplified and on display in leadership positions. (But penance and a sense of humor help.)
"Jesus bent down and began to write on the ground with his finger."
He began by sitting down; now he stoops. His playing in the dust astonished his opponents but it should not surprise us. We recall Psalm 18, a dramatic story of our peril and God's rescue when "He reached down from on high and seized me; drew me out of the deep waters."
We remember God's coming down to visit Adam and Eve, his conversations with Cain, and his visits with Abraham and Sarah. We remember his two steps down to confuse the language of Babel, and his coming down to Mount Sinai to give Moses the Laws, which he wrote with the tip of his finger.
More importantly, Jesus' bending down reflects a theme of John's Gospel: No one has gone up to heaven except the one who has come down from heaven, the Son of Man.
The great 20th century theologian Hans Urs Von Balthazar pondered the humility of God who would strip himself of power. God's supreme authority is only proven by his ability to divest himself of all authority. A lesser god is controlled by his power. Saint Francis of Assisi commanded his disciples to, "Look at the humility of God" as they gazed on the Blessed Sacrament.
In today's Gospel story Jesus shows us how power and authority must reverently bend down before the powerless, marginalized, impoverished, homeless, sick, disabled and enfeebled. In our time, as women demand respect and equality in the halls of power, the Church and the home, as they recall centuries of abuse, harassment and exploitation, men must do penance and offer atonement. We must examine our deeds, words and attitudes closely to discover every shred of "entitlement;" and, more importantly, ask the women in our lives, "How can I make it up to you?"