Yoder-Short: Stories rely on empathy

Mar 12, 2018 by

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Have you ever wondered about her story, that woman caught in adultery? We know nothing about her situation. Contrast this with the Samaritan woman, where we know about her five husbands and her latest live-in partner. We meet the adulterous woman in the middle of her story. Was she a willing participant in a scheming male-dominated power play? Was a trap set to catch her? And how did her male partner escape public shaming?

Jane Yoder-Short


She enters the story as an object useful for trapping Jesus.

When it comes to the drama between Jesus and the scribes and Pharisees, we enter early in the story. We watch the tension between the religious leaders and Jesus grow. We see them struggle to deal with Jesus. Is he trying to circumvent the teachings of Moses? By what authority is he acting? How big a threat does Jesus pose to the religious establishment?

A plan is formulated. Leviticus and Deuteronomy support the death penalty for adultery. The plotters just need a live, preferably female, adulterer. If Jesus doesn’t agree to her stoning, he is exposed as soft on Mosaic Law. If he does agree, he crosses Roman law, which does not allow Jews to carry out their own executions. It’s the perfect trap.

Jesus doesn’t fall for the setup. He shifts the story by flipping the question back to the posse of plotters. Jesus tells them that the one without sin should throw that first stone. Somewhat surprisingly, Jesus trusts his antagonists to be honest about their own sinfulness.

In the Journal of Biblical Literature, Gail O’Day observes that Jesus treats the woman and the scribes and Pharisees as equals. Jesus addresses words about sin to both. Both are invited to give up old ways and enter a new way of living. Jesus refuses to let sin define either the plotters or the woman. Instead, he points to new possibilities for both. Acquittal, freedom and transformation are for everyone.

Jesus diverts attention away from the woman and toward the wannabe stone-throwers. Do we prefer that the attention stays focused on the woman? Do we get uncomfortable when we realize how much we have in common with the judgmental group?

The plotters remind us how quickly we divide people into saints and sinners. They remind us that self-justification and superiority can feel good. We begin to see that the plotters are not super-villains but people like us.

The sin posse becomes more interested in control than in dialogue. They want to control the crowds and the religious institutions. In their rush to be seen as right, they lose empathy for the woman.

In our race to be right, we can lose empathy for those we see as the other. Too often, we make wrong assumptions about the stories of others. We enter in the middle of their story and think we understand the situation.

We begin to think we are above the fray. We miss the plotting, the moves to control, the planks in our eyes. We miss our biases. We fail to see beyond the fake news we have come to trust. We act without seeing the looming traps that dangle in the air. We slide into the comforting attraction of legalism. We drift into the inviting fog of mushy ethics. Either path can lead to snobbish, judgmental superiority.

Jesus manages to escape the traps. Jesus offers compassion, grace and transformation to all sides.

As sinners, let’s accept the offer. Let’s find ways to move toward Jesus’ example of holding these three together. Let’s start offering them recklessly and indiscriminately.

Jane Yoder-Short attends West Union Mennonite Church in Parnell, Iowa.

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