The Adulteress’ Tale

John 8:1 – 11 (King James Version)

1 Jesus went unto the mount of Olives. 2 And early in the morning he came again into the temple, and all the people came unto him; and he sat down, and taught them.

3 And the scribes and Pharisees brought unto him a woman taken in adultery; and when they had set her in the midst,4 They say unto him, Master, this woman was taken in adultery, in the very act. 5 Now Moses in the law commanded us, that such should be stoned: but what sayest thou?

6 This they said, tempting him, that they might have to accuse him. But Jesus stooped down, and with his finger wrote on the ground, as though he heard them not. 7 So when they continued asking him, he lifted up himself, and said unto them, He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her. 8 And again he stooped down, and wrote on the ground.

9 And they which heard it, being convicted by their own conscience, went out one by one, beginning at the eldest, even unto the last: and Jesus was left alone, and the woman standing in the midst.

10 When Jesus had lifted up himself, and saw none but the woman, he said unto her, Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?

11 She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee: go, and sin no more.

The Adulteress’ Tale

I remember that morning. The heat and the dust. And how they pushed me and jostled with each other as they dragged me to the temple. Some of their hands found their way to parts of my body that did not need to be grasped to lead me to my death. Sometimes, I wonder at the perversity of men.

I curled my toes into the sand as I stumbled along, and felt the edges of the stones as I walked. I tried to imagine how it would feel to have these stones thrown at me, hitting me, cutting me, until I died. It didn’t work. I couldn’t feel scared. It all seemed so strange.

They knew me. Every one of them. And they knew what I did for a living. Some of them had even visited me secretly. And suddenly, that morning, they had dragged me out of my house, yelling that I was a sinner and should die for my sins.

When they brought me before him and challenged him to pass judgement on me, it began to make sense. They were using me. Using me as an example for their pointless debates. It made me angry.

He sat there. So calmly. Writing in the dust. Ignoring their demanding voices.

They told him that I had been caught in adultery – a lie. I am much too careful for that sort of thing.

And they challenged him to defy the old scriptures, saying that Moses had said women like me should be stoned to death. It sounds like something I have heard them say of Moses.

Moses, who was saved from death at his birth by the midwives who risked their lives to disobey Pharoah. Moses, raised by Pharoah’s daughter who adopted him as her own on the urging of Miriam, his sister. Moses, saved from God’s wrath by Zipporah, his wife. So many men have no gratitude.

Then he looked up at me. For a moment our eyes met. And I knew I could be adulterous again, if I survived this. With him.

There was such energy in his eyes, I wondered how it would feel to be with a man like that.

He told them that the scriptures did indeed say that sinners like me should be stoned. He paused, and let them savour their moment of triumph. My heart beat faster. Was that it? From our glance he had not seemed to me a man to give up so easily. Was I to be disappointed again, by a man, just before I was killed – for loving all these men who disappointed me?

Then, he raised his voice slightly and challenged them back. “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” There was a silence. A long silence. I could feel their excitement and victory dissipate leaving behind confusion. Their grips on my arms and shoulders slackened.

And then, they left, one by one. Like dogs with their tails between their legs.

He had outwitted them. And for a moment I was grateful to him.

He had saved my life from those vultures, who would use me as fodder for their arguments. Perhaps some of them even felt guilt for their wandering hands!

He looked up at me. His eyes had that same intensity.

And then, I realised that he too had used me. He had used me to show off his wisdom and compassion. To win a battle of wits with the other Teachers. To impress them. To prove to the onlookers that he understood God better than they.

I remembered that terrifying and disappointing pause. He had timed his words well for the best dramatic effect.

I was angry, but grateful. And I wanted him, with his burning eyes and his long fingers casually writing in the sand. I wanted to smell him. Taste him. Drive him mad with pleasure, like I did with all the others.

I looked down, demurely. They usually liked that.

“Go now, and sin no more,” he said to me, kindly. Patronisingly.

“What is sin?” I asked him softly. My tone was of a little lost girl. But my eyes were both angry and hungry for him.

He had no answer, and he stared at me. It seemed to me that he was suddenly seeing me as a person and not a point to be made. I walked away.

Later, alone in my room, I wondered if he was the one everyone spoke of. They said he could be the messiah. He had the energy and the intensity to be one. He could lead us.

They say he’s descended from Abraham and David.

Abraham, who abandoned Hagar and their son in the desert. And David who abandoned Michal after she saved his life by deceiving her father. David who then reclaimed her, against her will, when she had married another and did not wish to part with him. David who spied on Bathsheba as she bathed. David who had Bathsheba’s husband murdered so that he could lie with her again.

Both greedy men, who acquired land and power and spread their seed without much thought for their women.

I can never understand why they speak of David and Abraham as his forefathers with such pride. But I’ve heard tell that he speaks only of a kingdom in heaven. Perhaps he does not want to be king. Perhaps he will not seek power on earth. There may be hope, yet.

They only speak of the men in his line, after all. The truth of it can only be known by the women.

Perhaps he has more potential than they credit him with. Perhaps he is descended from Anna and and Judith and Deborah and Yael.

Perhaps he could make a good messiah.

And if he is the one, I hope they remember him as a man. Of flesh and blood. Made to smell and taste and feel. I hope they don’t reduce him to a voice from the scriptures telling people what to do and what not to do. However revolutionary his ideas.

But that is too much to hope for.

And clashing with the Pharisees and Saducees, will only get him killed. Maybe even crucified, if the Romans notice him.

I wonder if I should seek him out, again. If he is to be the messiah, my presence could be dangerous for him. I hope he remembers me.

I can leave if he does not want me with him. But from what they say of him, he keeps worse company than prostitutes like me. They say he eats with tax-collectors and lepers. Perhaps he could be a great teacher. Both wise and compassionate.

And his eyes…

How should I go to him? Should I take my perfume and wash his feet and cry and promise never to go back to my sinful ways. It’s hard to tell from a single look whether he will appreciate repentance or not. Some men do. They like to think that they have cured a woman of her wandering ways and made her faithful. It makes them feel good about their skills in the night, and righteous about having brought her back to the lord. And he is to be the messiah, after all.

They never wonder what kind of Lord creates pleasure so intense and then insists that we, who feel it, tame ourselves and restrict our pleasure.

I wonder if his love is worth repentance?

Perhaps he will be different.

But then, how should I go to him?

I wonder if he will see me as a person. As a woman of skin and hair and smell and touch and thought. Or as a symbol, for him to reform. He is to be a messiah, after all. Such men are dangerous.

I know I will seek him out, for he fascinates me. The only question is, how?

Notes:

1. This piece began as a monologue about Mary Magdalene, and many of the ideas here come from discussions with friends. This is another version which came out of the discussion. Take a look at her blog as well. It’s beautiful. https://nathawahlang.wordpress.com/2015/03/07/the-forgiving-and-forgiven-whores-1-mary-magadalene/?preview_id=84

2. The bible I consulted, mentions that this story is not found in the ‘earliest and most reliable’ versions of the Gospel.

3. This is one of my favourite stories from the Bible – the idea that we are all flawed and have no right to judge other people is one I hold very dear. Nevertheless, I think the story bears retelling from this perspective. I also think we can learn a lot from this kind of a perspective, about how we can be insensitive to people who experience different subjectivities from ourselves.

4. This story, though often assumed to refer to Mary Magdalene, is probably not about her. For more information on her please read this excellent article: http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/history/who-was-mary-magdalene-119565482/?fb_locale=fr_FR&page=1

5. The conflation of the offence of ‘adultery’ with ‘prostitution’ is definitely part of the rewriting of (in this case, Biblical) history through male eyes, and the conflation of Mary Magdalene – possibly one of Jesus’ most trusted disciples – with the reformed prostitute we see her as today. Please do read the article linked above, for more on this. Despite this, and perhaps because of it, I think this kind of retelling of the tale can be very powerful for bringing another voice into this much beloved tale.

6. The line ‘What is Sin?’ emerged from a discussion with friends. One of them mentioned that a recent Malayalam poem ends this story with Mary looking up into Jesus’ eyes and asking him ‘What is Sin?’ I found the imagery very powerful – especially with the story ending there. I attempted to find a translation of the poem or the author’s name, so as to acknowledge the source, but have so far been unable to track either down. I will edit this as soon as I can acknowledge that source properly.

7. I am also probably, strongly influenced by the musical, ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ (Music: Andrew Lloyd Webber; Lyrics: Tim Rice) and the song, ‘I don’t know how to love him’. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lS2nX4fuzqc

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A life well-lived

Story vaguely prompted by: https://thefuzzyinbetween.files.wordpress.com/2014/10/dsc_0163.jpg

When the old lady looked back on her life, things didn’t seem so bad. It seemed a life well-lived.

She had enjoyed her school-years, though not necessarily her school; worked for a while and lived alone; fallen in love; studied society and given it up to study nature which had at first seemed more predictable but had then betrayed her with it’s uncertainties.

She had married the man she was expected to and had never regretted it but always nursed a secret curiosity about life with the one she had fallen in love with. She had had a child, refused to leave her job to care for it, and had had another.

She had buried her headstrong daughter after a freak accident claimed her life in adolescence, and had proceeded to protect her son till he resented her for it. She had lived with her son and his family long after her husband had died and watched her granddaughters grow up. She had managed to maintain a relationship of minimal friction with her daughter-in-law.

She had believed fervently in the God of her religion, lost faith and then later, had unexpectedly stumbled upon it still within her.

She had been a revolutionary in her own little way, though not many would remember her rebellion and had eventually become a fractious part of the establishment as was expected of her. She still treasured the memory of her rebellion, and every time she held it up to the light of her own experience, she was reassured by the rightness of it in her world-view.

She had experimented with the fashions of her age, rejected some and adopted others as her own. She had enjoyed alcohol and flirted with marijuana but had not taken to either very strongly. She had dressed in severe minimalist black and then in explosions of colour and eventually had ceased to think so hard about her clothing. Her hair had grown to great lengths, been shaved off, coloured outrageous colours and had now slowly turned white.

She had acted in plays, written poetry, painted canvases and had refused to ‘judge’ the work of others because she did not believe that art could be judged until she was no longer taken seriously in those circles, though she continued to paint and write sporadically.

She had loved passionately and without reason and it had never faded though the object of her love had ceased to reciprocate. She had loved very differently along channels of respectability, and this love was not hampered by the other, nor was it in any way less.

She had risked her reputation on an idea that quickly went out of fashion and had carefully built it up again according to the rules of the world, though she never lost faith in her idea.

She had had her spells of being unreasonable, and had contributed her share of scandal to the world though both were quickly forgotten against the respectability of the life she had lived.

She had carved a life out in a world that was at times hostile to her, and then had become such a part of it that she had to guard against being hostile to those younger or more invested and intractable in their idealism than her.

It had been a full life. She had lived vigorously all the roles available to her at the time. Dutiful daughter; rebellious student; hard worker; loyal friend; passionate lover; daring daughter-in-law; loving wife; responsible, grief-striken and finally possessive mother; interesting colleague; doting and then forgotten grandmother… she had lived them all to the hilt.

And now, her days had fallen into a rhythm of basic needs. Food, sleep, exercise and the occasional conversation with a dwindling number of contemporaries. The conversations sometimes dwelt on the eventuality and inevitability of death though more often they distracted themselves from it with reminiscence, faint sorrow and laughter.

From time to time when they visited, she would remind her granddaughters that she too had been young once, and they would respond with wide-eyed interest, respect, mild amusement or embarrassment varying with their age and mood at the time of the conversation.

The old lady smiled vaguely as she tried to collect her increasingly scattered thoughts. Her pale veined hands shook slightly as she ran the wide-toothed comb through her white hair. She glanced again at the mirror on the colourful wall opposite, which her artist granddaughter had finger-painted for her, last summer.

She had never really thought of herself as an old lady, even though her hair had grown thin and turned completely white. Was that what made one old, she mused, or was it the smile-wrinkles around the eyes and the frown wrinkles on the forehead? Was it perhaps the slowly increasing folds that hung between one’s neck and one’s chin? Was it the veins that showed blue-green and the gradual fading of colour from the skin? Or was it the tendency to live more and more in one’s head, dwelling on memory and forgetting to see the every-day?

She often thought of her contemporaries as old, but herself… why she did not feel much older than nineteen. Perhaps that was vanity. She was much slower, now; her mind wandered more and she had many aches and pains that one simply did not have at nineteen. Perhaps age had more to do with a state of mind, than of body? She smiled to herself at her wishful thinking and watched her hand shake as she ran the comb slowly through her hair. Why should she wish to be something that she was not? She was eighty-seven, and proud of it.

She tied her scant hair into a bun and crouched down to a squat in the gateway, dressed in her comfortable faded white nightie. Her daughter-in-law often complained that she dressed this way and sat at the gate in a way calculated to embarrass the family. Sometimes her granddaughters agreed with their mother, so she would go back inside, change into newer clothing and bring a chair out. But sometimes she forgot and sat there, gazing down the road.

Perhaps one of her granddaughters would visit today.

When the old lady looked back on her life, things didn’t seem so bad. It seemed a life well-lived.