I’ve always wondered about that stoning thing in the Bible. I mean, how did it actually work? It doesn’t seem realistic that a person would just stand there and wait for the rocks to pummel them. Wouldn’t they try to run away? Would the stoners have to get a couple of big guys to hold onto the stonee? If so, then how did they avoid injury?
Going to church all my life, I’ve probably heard twenty sermons about the woman caught in “the act” and brought before Jesus to be stoned. Preachers tended to skip over the adultery part though and just focus on Jesus doodling in the dirt with his finger. The more daring ones might have speculated on what He could have written. Details of the accusers’ sins? Perhaps a list of the ones who had enjoyed this woman’s pleasures themselves? Their near-carnal hypothesizing tended to diminish the interaction between Jesus and the woman, yet that’s where I find a real treasure. It’s a story of forgiveness and love – love in action.The kind that extends beyond saying the right words to a practical, make-a-difference kind of love.
Last month a friend wrote a piece about this same adulteress that answered some of my logistical questions about stoning. (You can find it here.) Reading it, I was both informed and disturbed, thinking about how horrifying it would have been. Caught in the act, a woman dragged through the streets by a self righteous, angry mob screaming obscenities and insults. The crowd, pelting her with taunts and accusations on the way to a slow, painful execution; no less than the law demanded. (I’ve always found it suspicious that her male partner in crime was absent in this death march to the town square.)
According to my writer friend’s research, many stonings took place in this way: The accused was shoved in a hole dug to waist depth. Big rocks were added to pin her in and then the mob would throw stones, rocks, or whatever was lying around, battering her until she was dead. Since it was impossible to know who actually struck the fatal blow, no single person could be held responsible.
Given such a scenario, it would be easy to imagine her terror. Was it hard to see the attackers through her hot tears of shame? Or were her eyes squeezed tightly shut to block out the angry faces? Shawl pulled up over her face, tasting her own blood and anticipating the exploding pain as rocks rained down on her already-bruised and broken body?
It would have taken a while to realize the catcalls had quieted down. When she finally lifted her chin to see why, her accusers had completely disappeared! And there was a man, bent down and tracing letters in the dirt – did she recognize him? The Gospel of John says they had a brief conversation. Perhaps Jesus affirmed, You’re better than this, daughter. There was no harsh criticism or pious judgment. He simply told her to go and sin no more. Given our culture’s preoccupation with sexuality and lifestyle choices I find it interesting that Jesus doesn’t seem any more appalled by her sins than when he spoke to the rich young man or Nicodemus.
But if she was buried waist deep in rocks and dirt it would take more than a few eloquent words to get her out of the pit. It wasn’t a pretty picture. She was bloody and bruised and beaten. She was trapped; she needed somebody to move the rocks. The finger-pointing crowd had melted away, so who was left? I imagine Jesus kneeling down and beginning to remove the rocks one by one. It required more than a little dirt under His fingernails. It would have been work, and would have taken a sustained amount of effort.
In doing this, Jesus would do much more than just point out the obvious. Stop sinning, it’s wrong, you’re hurting yourself. He would have to move the dirt and rocks and garbage that her wretched life choices had piled up all around. (I remind myself that this is what He calls me to do, sometimes. It’s not always enough to just talk – or even listen well. Sometimes people need help to remove their rocks and that means I might get dirty and messy in the process.)
So with the living, active love of Jesus, this woman’s shame was expunged – one stone at a time. Rocks moved and mission accomplished, I envision Jesus reaching down, extending a hand and saying, Come follow me. And Mary of Magdalena would do just that. She would become one of Jesus’ most devoted followers, traveling a road that took her all the way to the foot of the cross and beyond – to an empty tomb.